PILLAGER — There’s nothing like being home for the holidays.

Minnesota National Guard Sgt. Joshua Solway should know. The Pillager veteran will be celebrating his first Thanksgiving as a family with his wife Alisha and their baby boy Colton.

“I love Thanksgiving,” said Solway, who was abroad last year during Thanksgiving while serving his country. “The sacrifice, for me, was basically time with my family and with friends as well. I have really close friends.”

The 25-year-old grew up in Staples and was deployed to Kuwait last year with the 851st Vertical Engineer Company in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. The soldiers returned to Minnesota in March after nine months and were welcomed home with an official ceremony in June.

“I’m definitely trying to catch up on everyday life here,” he said. “It’s different every time to adapt to come home as well.”

Almost 1,000 Minnesota National Guard soldiers and airmen are deployed this month, according to the Minnesota National Guard. Gov. Tim Walz proclaimed this month as Military Family Month to salute and celebrate military families’ service and sacrifice.

Deployment

Life hasn’t been easy for Alisha without him. The 28-year-old works as a medical assistant at Essentia Health in addition to being a first-time mom of their 10-month-old son born in January.

“It was hard, especially being pregnant. I found out I was pregnant a couple of months after he left,” she said.

He said, “It was like four weeks after I got into Kuwait.”

Alisha said she moved to the Brainerd lakes area to live with Joshua. Her family resides in the Twin Cities, which is more than a two-hour drive from Pillager.

“It was extra hard not having any family up here, especially around the holidays. His mom has been helpful because she lives up here,” she said.

He said, “My dad actually lives a couple of blocks away from her parents.”

The average age of the deploying soldiers in Solway’s unit is 27 years old, according to the Minnesota National Guard, and the youngest soldier is 18 and the oldest is 55.

“We were not married when he deployed. To get him home for Colton’s birth, we actually had to get married, so I flew down to Texas last year in October and got married by proxy. My mom stood in his place,” Alisha said.

“It’s worth it for him (Colton),” Joshua said. “I wouldn’t want to miss it for him.”

Joshua said he prefers to focus on his work during his deployment and called his mom about two or three times a month when he was away and his wife once a week.

“I actually kind of distance myself from my family when I’m gone because it’s harder for me to deal with everything that’s going on at home and over there (in Kuwait),” he said. “But every doctor’s appointment, I’d be on FaceTime for Colton. I tried to do everything I could.”

The Kuwait deployment was the first for 137 soldiers in Solway’s unit, the second deployment for 10 and the third deployment for two; Solway was also deployed in 2015 and 2016.

“They first initially said I was going to be able to come home (for Colton) if we were not married or whatever … and then they said, ‘No way. They have to be married,’ so I was just like, ‘If this is what we’ve got to do to get me home,’ but we had already been talking about it,” he said.

Challenges

After the couple was wed by proxy, he was flown home for 14 days, so he could be stateside for their baby’s birth, but then returned to Kuwait for two more months.

“I came home two days before his birth, so I actually got to see her pregnant,” Joshua said.

Alisha said, “I got induced on his due date, so he would have as much time with him as possible. We were waiting for him to make his grand entrance (into the world).”

“I was fighting tooth and nail to stay home after Colton’s birth,” he said. “Just knowing she was pregnant the whole time (I was away) — that was the hardest part for me because she would be on an emotional roller coaster being pregnant. We would text every day, but it’s hard to read emotions in texts.”

Essentia Health medical assistant Alisha Solway holds her 10-month-old son Colton as his father Minnesota National Guard Sgt. Joshua Solway watches them Tuesday, Nov. 26, in their home in Pillager. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
Essentia Health medical assistant Alisha Solway holds her 10-month-old son Colton as his father Minnesota National Guard Sgt. Joshua Solway watches them Tuesday, Nov. 26, in their home in Pillager. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

The soldiers operated out of Camp Arifjan and Camp Buehring, Kuwait. Camp Arifjan is a U.S. Army installation, which accommodates elements of the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Coast Guard, as well as various NATO nations and contractors.

According to the Minnesota National Guard, 63 of the 851st Vertical Engineer Company have at least one dependent family member, and of the more than 150 soldiers that were deployed with Solway, 14 are women.

The 150 soldiers from the Camp Ripley-based company completed construction projects in support of military units in several countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan. The unit primarily focused on general construction projects.

“I would be awake working when she’s sleeping because of the nine-hour time difference — it was 10 hours when I was in Qatar — so I’d sleep when she’s working,” he said. “It was like we’d have an hour to talk in the morning … an hour she’s going to work and I’m going to bed.”

Solway said he enlisted in 2011 as a carpenter because of his uncle, who was in the National Guard, and now the Pillager veteran works as a recruiter for the Minnesota National Guard in the Brainerd National Guard Armory.

“I miss being deployed every day. I like the lifestyle, but I also love being home with my family,” he said. “I get a huge sense of purpose from being overseas as well, so that’s kind of why I do recruiting because it’s like giving back — career counseling, helping people find their purpose.”

FRANK LEE, county and features reporter, may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.