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American flags lined Wright Street in front of the Brainerd National Guard Armory Friday morning as tears and goodbye hugs were shared by family members and Brainerd-based soldiers of Headquarters Company, 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 194th Armor.

The soldiers left their families and traveled to Fort McCoy, Wis., for training. They’ll eventually travel to Kuwait for a one-year deployment as part of the U.S. military’s drawdown of forces in Iraq.

Pfc. Michael Workman of Crosby said Friday he had mixed feelings about the departure. While he was happy to serve his country and use the skills he’s learned, he was sad to leave his wife, Laura; daughter, Taylor, 10 months; and son, Andrew.

“But I know they’ll be taken care of,” the Magnum Machining employee said.

For his wife, Laura, “keeping strong for our children,” will be an important priority.

A four-year veteran of the National Guard, Workman said he knew when he enlisted he might someday be deployed. His brother has been in the Guard for six years so he knew a little bit about the lifestyle before he enlisted.

“We discussed it for a long time,” he said of conversations with his wife.

Both Workmans said the military is very supportive of the families of deployed soldiers. Knowing that he won’t be there to help his wife when domestic problems arise, he has encouraged her to take advantage of the military’s familly-oriented programs.

“I told her if she needs help, she’s got to ask,” Workman said.

Workman and the other soldiers who boarded a bus for Fort McCoy are part of what National Guard officials are terming the second largest deployment of the Minnesota National Guard since World War II. The Brainerd company is one of six companies of Bloomington’s First Brigade Combat Team 34th Infantry Division, known as the Red Bulls. The brigade is deploying 2,400 soldiers to support Operation New Dawn, the drawdown phase of U.S. military operations in Iraq. They will ensure military equipment is prepared to depart the Theater of Operations in Iraq. The Brainerd-based soldiers will provide base defense in Kuwait and perform route security in support of U.S. forces.

This is the second deployment for Sgt.1st Class Rian Hofstad of Foley, who earlier served in Bosnia. He was engaged to his wife, Dawn, during that deployment. The big difference with this forced separation Dawn Hofstad said is “a lot of whys” from Cole, 4 and Henry, 1 (almost 2), as they begin to realize their dad  is going to be gone awhile.

While Dawn Hofstad said she knew what she was getting into when she married a soldier there has been a learning curve.

“I didn’t know it would be forever,” she said. “Got that now.”

Sgt. Kayla Rubbelke, a 2005 Brainerd High School graduate, said she was attracted to the National Guard because of the education benefits. She’ll work in quality control in administrative work.

The hardest part of the upcoming separation will be being away from home for the holidays. Rubbelke’s goals during the 12-month deployment are to “do the job and get home safely.”

Seeing her off were her mom and stepfather, Dawn and Ralph Mykkanen of Baxter, and her sisters, Pennie and Sasha Rubbelke.  

Sy Thole, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran from 1961-64, said it was tough to see his son, Sgt. Tim Thole of St. Cloud, leave on his first deployment.

The long goodbyes were interrupted by a call from 1st Sgt. Brendan Jay for soldiers to fall into formation in front of three buses. After he read off bus assignments the soldiers were allowed to return to their families for one last quick goodbye before boarding the buses.

“Bye, buddy,” Sgt. Bobby Van Heel said to his son. “Help mom out a lot.”

Bidding him farewell, were his wife, Stephanie of Ham Lake, and three children from a blended family of six. The three children who were able to attend the sendoff were Connor, 11; Drew, 9; and Jacob, 6.

“Take care of my wife,” Sgt. Van Heel said to his wife’s parents, Wayne and Renee Chambard of Coon Rapids. “I know she’s  in good hands.”

At 8:57 a.m. bus drivers started their buses and the low rumble of the engines signaled the imminent departures of the soldiers whose contact with family would be limited to emails, Skype and phone calls for the next year. A few minutes later, with soldiers waving through tinted windows, the buses began their journey to Fort McCoy.

After the buses pulled out the soldiers’ loved ones slowly walked from the front of the armory to their vehicles. A few of them let their emotions show as they wiped tears from their eyes and embraced each other before walking to their vehicles.

Becca Clemens
After graduating high school in 2004, I attended Central Lakes College in Staples, MN for 2 years where I got a diploma in Communication Art and Design. I then transfered up to Bemidji State University in, you guessed it, Bemidji, MN. In the spring of 2009, I graduated from BSU. Then in the fall of 2009 I got a job at Echo Publishing, a sister company to the Brainerd Dispatch.