Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty joined thousands of friends and families in officially saying goodbye to the Minnesota National Guard’s 34th Infantry Division on Tuesday evening at St. Paul’s Roy Wilkins Auditorium.
It’s not often a National Guard unit is given command over major units of the regular army, Pawlenty said. But that’s exactly what the 34th Infantry Division’s “Red Bulls” will be doing.
When the unit’s 1,037 members reach Iraq, they will manage a 16,000-person multinational task force and work directly with Iraqi Security Forces, including their army, police and border enforcement, covering eight provinces in southeastern Iraq.
First, though, the Red Bulls are being sent to Fort Lewis, Wash., at the end of this week to begin three months of training before being deployed.
The soldiers will be leaving family, friends, careers and educational plans behind for 15 months.
Staff Sgt. Ross Hedlund is a University student and one of 96 Red Bulls who had to put their college plans on hold while they were deployed to Iraq. Hedlund was on a long weekend exercise with another unit when he found out he was being transferred to the Rosemount , Minn., portion of the 34th Infantry Division because they were being deployed.
After his initial shock, Hedlund decided to apply to graduate with two degrees in December — 14 credits short of the four majors and a minor he had planned on receiving from the Carlson School of Management.
He said he plans on coming back for a semester after his deployment to finish the degrees.
For Hedlund, this will be the second time delaying college plans to go to Iraq. He was deployed for the first time in February 2004.
“The hardest part is usually the transition,” he said. “After the first few days of getting to know the routine, it should go pretty smooth.”
Hedlund keeps a blog where he answers questions about the Army and discusses his experiences as a soldier and a student. He plans to maintain the blog throughout his deployment. It can be found at rosshedlund.blogspot.com.
Sgt. First Class David Denton , a 22-year veteran of the Minnesota Guard, will also be serving his second tour in Iraq.
He said he and his wife already know what it’s like to be separated for a tour of duty, but it will be tougher to be away from his sons this time because they’re older — 5- and 8-years old, rather than 1 and 4.
He said his oldest, Ethan, is old enough to remember his first deployment and is very unhappy about his dad leaving again.
The biggest change Denton noticed in his 22 years with the Guard has been the change in support.
In the past eight years, he said he has been humbled by the number of people he’s seen thanking members of the military for their service. An example of that new level of gratitude is the signed banners the University and other groups presented to the division to take with them on their deployment.