When Brian Heitkotter and Troy Hannah learned they would be deployed to Kuwait with the Minnesota Army National Guard, it meant their department at Landis+Gyr in Pequot Lakes would be losing 10 percent of its workforce for an entire year.
While the high tech communications company made due for the year, assigning their duties to other employees and hiring additional help, they certainly didn’t forget them.
The company flew a deployed soldier flag outside its Pequot Lakes offices for the entire year. The flag featured two blue stars, representing Heitkotter and Hannah, as they spent a year serving their country.
While the two men were not stationed in the same camp — Heitkotter was with the 1-94 Cavalry based in Duluth stationed at Camp Buehring and Hannah was with Alpha Company, 1-194 Combined Arms Battalion based in Alexandria stationed at Camp Virginia — they were deployed at the same time.
Heitkotter is an operations manager at Landis+Gyr while Hannah is a manufacturing engineer. Heitkotter has worked there for more than 13 years while Hannah has been there for 11 years.
In an odd coincidence, both men share the same birthday — Oct. 14.
The citizen soldiers left in May 2011 and returned in April. While they were gone, two additional employees were hired to help with their workload. Another employee was assigned extra duties on a part-time basis. The hirings were made with the expectation that company growth would allow Landis+Gyr to retain those new employees when Heitkotter and Hannah returned.
The men were part of the state’s largest troop deployment since World War II, according to the Minnesota Army National Guard. About 2,700 Minnesota National Guard Red Bulls were sent to the Persian Gulf. The Minnesota Red Bulls helped with the troop withdrawal from Iraq, escorting convoys out of Iraq, including 40,000 U.S. Troops who left Iraq just before last Christmas.
Heitkotter served as an executive officer for C Troop and was second in command. He was in charge of running the C Troop. He has been in the National Guard for the past 15 years.
Hannah worked in operations while stationed at Camp Virginia. He has been with the National Guard for the past 11 years.
Both of their Red Bulls units were responsible for security detail for convoys in and out of Iraq. They traveled throughout Iraq and returned to Kuwait.
While the men were gone, their coworkers would send them care packages. At Christmas, they each got a large care package with a video shot of the company Christmas party.
Fortunately, no one in either of their units was killed during the deployment. A gunner in Heitkotter’s unit received a Purple Heart medal after being struck in the arm by shrapnel from an IED that exploded. The soldier stayed in Kuwait and returned to duty.
While safety is always a concern when on active duty, both said the insufferable hot weather was their biggest complaint.
“It was like nothing you’ve ever experienced,” Heitkotter said, of the hot desert weather. There were many days it was 120 degrees. “You’d walk outside and immediately start to sweat. Then the wind would kick up the sand and the sand would stick to you.”
Heitkotter said soldiers would drink 1-1/2 to 2 gallons of water a day so they wouldn’t get dehydrated and basically just sweat it out.
Hannah said with technology like Skype, email and even Facebook, he felt he didn’t lose contact with friends and family while stationed in Kuwait for the year, although it’s not the same as in person.
It was hard to be away from their wives and children for so long.
Hannah and his wife, Cindy, live in Breezy Point and have a 13-year-old son, Blake.
Heitkotter and his wife, Jilaine, live in Brainerd with their three daughters, Zoey, 13; Sarah, 10; and Nicole, 7.
The two coworkers never saw each other when stationed in Kuwait but the couple of weeks they spent at Camp Shelby in Mississippi after returning from Kuwait, they saw each other nearly every day.
They arrived home separately last April.
It was a transition coming home after being away for a year. Even the little things in life, like not having to take a shower with shower shoes on or not having to use plastic utensils, took some time getting used to.
Hannah ended up not coming home for his two-week leave during his deployment for various reasons, but mostly his leave was late into his deployment and he and his wife didn’t want to pull him out of school so late in the school year. So six weeks after he returned, Landis+Gyr allowed him to take about 2-1/2 weeks off to vacation with his family. They traveled by car to the East Coast, visiting Niagara Falls, New York City, Washington, D.C., and other attractions. It was a fun trip, Hannah said.
“Landis+Gyr was very supportive of that,” Hannah said of his family vacation.
The two men, now veterans, said it’s nice to talk to another veteran who has had a similar experience of deployment. Both feel fortunate that they didn’t experience tragedy, such as losing a fellow soldier during their deployments.
Heitkotter said he finds they both often slip into military jargon when they are talking at work.
“It just comes out,” Hannah said with a smile. “It’s definitely different talking to a veteran instead of a non-veteran.”
Heitkotter now has a new role within his department at Landis+Gyr since he was deployed, which is working out well.
“They’ve been really good about everything,” Heitkotter said of his employer. “It’s been really easy working with Landis+Gyr and getting back into the swing of things.”