Yvonne Herzan does her best to keep her fear and tears at bay.
But controlling emotions has been difficult the past few days as tensions between the United States and Iran rapidly escalate following a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad early Friday that killed a top Iranian general.
When Herzan woke later that morning to news that Iran vows to retaliate for the drone strike that killed the powerful commander of its Revolutionary Guards Corps, “I busted out crying,” she said, worried about her daughter, Sarah, 20, who is among the nearly 700 Minnesota National Guard soldiers who recently deployed to the Middle East.
“I’m scared of the unknown,” the Eden Prairie mother said.
Like thousands of other families and friends of soldiers across the country, Herzan anxiously awaits the next development in the crisis, hoping hostilities between the two countries ease and their loved ones stay safe. Late Friday, that seemed uncertain as the United States sent 3,500 troops to the region while Iran vowed to exact vengeance for the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
“I’m taking it day by day,” said Rena Keller of St. Cloud. Her 20-year-old son, National Guard Specialist Daunte Keller, was deployed to Iraq in mid-December.
“I’m numb,” she said. “It’s very emotional for me. I’m just trying to sort it out.”
Keller has been watching TV constantly the past few days to stay on top of the latest news alerts. But she added, it’s been difficult, and “I’m thinking I need to do less of that.”
Instead, she’ll wait for the phone calls, video chats and Snapchat texts from her son.
On Friday, a 10-minute conversation with Daunte was just what she needed.
He told her he was fine. He told her he was safe.
“He doesn’t want to ever worry me,” Rena Keller said. “He does what he feels he’s supposed to do and laughs it off with me.
“I let him think that works,” she said, adding that it really doesn’t because, as a mother, she can’t help but worry.
‘A lot of prayers’
Daunte Keller and the Minnesota National Guard members who recently deployed are from the 34th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade, and part of one of the largest single deployments from the state since the second Iraq war began.
Their mission: to move cargo and personnel via helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and unmanned aerial systems.
Keller enlisted in the National Guard after graduating high school in 2018 to help pay for college and continue a family legacy in military service.
His mother wouldn’t have chosen that path for him, but he was determined and she wanted to support him.
“Daunte is a driven young man,” Rena Keller said.
Now he’s in Iraq, and Keller says “I don’t know how to deal with it yet.”
Family and friends have been there to listen, provide hugs and offer a shoulder to cry on.
“There are a lot of tears, a lot of prayers and a lot of leaning on the people in our lives for support,” Keller said.
But as the conflict between the United States and Iran intensified late last week, Keller needed something more — she needed to talk with others who have loved ones serving in the Middle East.
“It’s not necessarily what they say but it’s about being able to share with someone else who is in a similar situation,” she said. “They can relate. They have the same feelings and emotions, and you don’t feel so alone.”
Norma Bjornson, who lives near Brainerd, grew up in a military family and knows the drill when it comes to service. But when the news broke about the drone strike in Baghdad, “It sent a shiver down my spine,” she said.
She immediately thought about her 19-year-old grandson, Ethan Stanford, who is stationed in Kuwait.
A week earlier, the family had gathered on Christmas Day and passed around a phone as they chatted with Ethan.
“There were sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, and we talked normal stuff,” Bjornson said.
They joked with each other and talked about hunting — “Ethan and his grandpa have hunted every year together as long as I can remember,” Bjornson said.
When her grandson called on Friday for a brief visit, his words brought a bit of relief.
“Bless his heart, he called and said, ‘Grandma, I’m fine,’ ” she said.
But, she added, “I’m sure there are things he can’t tell us.”
Which keeps her wondering — and worrying.
“It’s just there,” she said. “You just have to deal with it. … I think about him every day, but you have to go on with your day. You say prayers that he’s going to be OK.”
Proud, but scared
Back in Eden Prairie, Yvonne Herzan deals with the stress in her own way.
Thinking of Sarah, she often turns her wrist to glance at the Celtic symbol she had tattooed there while her daughter was in basic training. The symbol means “breathe,” she said.
With her daughter now a world away, she needs that reminder more than ever. She tells herself over and over that military service was something her daughter always wanted. Sarah Riviere Herzan was a 17-year-old high school junior when she told her parents they needed to sign the forms so she could enlist.
“This is the path I’m choosing. This is what I want,” she told them.
When Sarah deployed to Kuwait a few weeks ago, Herzan’s heart dropped.
“I’m scared,” her mother said, choking back the emotion. “I’m not good. You just don’t know, and I’m the mama bear.”
It’s hard, she says, but she also admits to feeling a sense of pride.
Her daughter, who repairs equipment, pushed to go to Kuwait.
“She wants the experience. She’s always been someone who pushes the envelope,” Herzan said. “She wants to strive for more.”
For now, Sarah and her fellow soldiers are confined to their base, her mother said.
“They’re upping protections because of potential threats,” Herzan said. “They’re prepared for whatever is to come. She’s ready to go north if they need her. She feels safe. She feels good.
“It will be OK,” Herzan assures herself. “She’s a strong person and she’s going to come home.”
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788
Minnesota National Guard brigade in Iraq
Seven hundred Minnesota National Guard soldiers from the St. Paul-based 34th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade recently deployed to the Middle East. They are providing air support across the region, moving cargo and personnel via helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and unmanned aerial systems. They are expected to return in the fall.