From a world away, Nickole Wells will still be able to read her babies a bedtime story. Prerecorded Hallmark books will soothe her 3-year-old and 10-month-old daughters to sleep while she’s serving her country abroad.
Capt. Melanie Nelson has hired a college-age sitter to help watch over her two teenagers — and cook meatballs for them just like Mom’s. And fathers like Ronald Kolliboyen are looking into military services to help their families while they’re stationed 6,700 miles from home.
Exactly one month before their deployment to Kuwait, members of the Minnesota National Guard’s 347th Regional Support Group are scrambling to make arrangements for loved ones they’ll soon leave behind.
At a ceremony Saturday at the Minneapolis Convention Center, politicians and military leaders welcomed home three returning Guard units and bid farewell to the 347th Headquarters Company, made up of 39 soldiers. They ship out March 11 for a nine-month stint overseas.
DFL Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, along with U.S. Reps. Betty McCollum, Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer, thanked service members for their sacrifice and praised military families for supporting and encouraging them.
“Each and every one of you represents the best of our state, the best of our country,” said Klobuchar, who has advocated for equal benefits for Guard members and active duty personnel. “It is my deep belief that when you come home to America and you need a job, or health care, or education, there should never be a waiting line.”
Elected leaders touted Minnesota’s 11,000 Guard soldiers — one of the highest per capita in the nation — for their sense of duty. Minnesota brigades have served in a variety of situations, from Super Bowl LII security to federal hurricane relief to Middle Eastern deployments in support of the global war on terrorism.
“We’re honored that you volunteered,” said Paulsen, R-Minn. “You didn’t have to do this.”
‘It’s just my turn’
For some, the mission comes two decades or more after their first deployment. Means of communication have changed a lot since then, making it easier on families to regularly stay in touch through instant messaging and video apps.
“There was no e-mail back then. It was just letters,” said Nelson, a public affairs officer from Lindström who last deployed in 1997. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, she carried around a cassette tape recorder to tape messages to send home. This time, she’ll be able to speak to her husband and two teens over Facebook Messenger, where they can see one another’s faces.
Nelson and her husband, Darron, broke the news about her deployment to the kids Sunday. The pair had known for several months but had delayed telling them in an effort to maintain a sense of normality in the home. “I put a positive spin on it,” Nelson said. “It’s just my turn.”
Kolliboyen, a newlywed from Golden Valley, is facing his first mission abroad. In the days ahead of his departure, he’s looking to line up resources to assist his wife in caring for their 9-month-old daughter, Ronalda.
“As long as she gets to see me,” he said, cooing as he bounced the baby, “she knows Daddy’s somewhere.”
A resource fair doled out information on military counseling, VA benefits and youth programs to help prepare loved ones for what to expect once soldiers say their goodbyes.
Families say it can be a jarring transition, especially for young children. When Jameson Schwartz joined the four-member 1903rd Acquisition Team in Kuwait, his 10-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son refused to speak to him for the first several months of his deployment. They were initially resentful that he’d left, said his wife, Bethany Schwartz. She had to convince the kids that he’d volunteered to go.
“Generations of our family have done this,” Schwartz, of St. Cloud, recalls explaining. “And he’s good at it — so it’s what he needs to do.”
Jameson Schwartz returned to Minnesota before the holidays last year and may face another deployment in 2019. If that happens, Bethany Schwartz said she’ll be more likely to ask for help from military services.
Robert Simon, a retired police officer and Marine Corps veteran, said those resources also come in handy once loved ones return — which can be just as difficult. So-called “First World problems” (like complaints about the weather) can get under a soldier’s skin.
“When you come back, things aren’t going to be the same,” said Simon, who recently returned with the 257th Military Police Company after serving nine months as a prison guard at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay. “Some things just don’t seem as important as they used to.”
Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648