Minnesota National Guard Sends 550 Soldiers to Middle East in One of State’s Largest Recent Deployments

by Braxton Taylor

In his four decades in the Minnesota National Guard, Sgt. Maj. Chris Schlukebier has deployed overseas three times. Each came at a different phase in the Rosemount man’s life and to a different global hot spot: First to Bosnia in 2003 when his children were young, then to Iraq in 2009 — the most difficult deployment, because Iraq was especially dangerous and his three daughters were teenagers — and then to Kuwait in 2018.

On Thursday morning, Schlukebier, now a 57-year-old grandfather, strode into the Grace Church auditorium in Eden Prairie to report for overseas duty one more time, his last before retirement. He joined some 550 fellow soldiers in the 34th Infantry Division — mostly from Minnesota but also from bordering states — who were seated near the stage in military fatigues, awaiting their official ceremony to head to Kuwait. It was one of the largest deployments the Minnesota National Guard has seen in the past five years.

The circumstances around the group’s deployment darkened considerably over the past few months. The Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack in Israel sparked a brutal Israeli reprisal in Gaza, with fears the war may spread throughout the region. On Sunday, an Iran-backed militia launched an attack on an American military base in Jordan, killing three American soldiers and injuring more than 40. President Joe Biden has vowed a strong response.

“It’ll be a little more tense than last time, but being in Kuwait, less tense than other parts of the area,” said Schlukebier, who attended the ceremony with his wife, Lynda. He will serve as the oldest soldier in the group. “I’m going somewhere familiar. And I’m going with a lot of the same guys as five years ago.”

Members of the 34th Infantry Division, known as the Red Bulls, have known for a year that this regularly scheduled 10-month deployment was coming. After Thursday’s departure ceremony, the soldiers headed to the armory in Arden Hills for a couple days before a month of training at Fort Cavazos in Texas, formerly Fort Hood. The soldiers ought to land in Kuwait in March with the goal of being home by Christmas.

More than half of the 550 soldiers have been on overseas deployments before; four of them were marking their sixth deployment.

The mission, centered in Kuwait but with soldiers fanning out to other Middle East countries, has two prongs: Operation Spartan Shield, which aims to promote regional self-reliance and increased security among partner countries in the Middle East such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan; and Operation Inherent Resolve, which aims to defeat ISIS.

Gov. Tim Walz, who served 24 years in the Minnesota National Guard, sent the soldiers off by telling them they represent America’s finest ideals as a world power, projecting democracy and stability across the world.

“It’s a chaotic world,” Walz said. “It’s a world where at times it seems everybody is trying to figure out ways to divide us. But when you walk into these spaces, there’s a sense of family. There’s a sense of purpose. There’s a sense of community. This is what unifies us.”

With the Middle East thrown into the chaos of the past several months, leaders have no real idea where the deployment will end up.

Brig. Gen. Joe Sharkey, an assistant division commander, brought his unit to attention at the end of the ceremony. Babies cried in the crowd of 3,000. The soldiers stood.

“Red Bulls!” he shouted.

“ATTACK!” they responded.

Afterward, Sharkey, who served twice in the Middle East at the beginning of the Iraq War, said he’s looking forward to the upcoming deployment. He’s most sad to be missing his son’s spring graduation from St. John’s University and commissioning as a second lieutenant; he had missed his daughter’s birth while on a previous deployment.

The Hamas attack in Israel came when the soldiers were in the midst of training. A professor of Middle East studies flew in to give senior leaders a cultural overview of the region.

“It got real then,” Sharkey said. “Fast forward to today: over 160 attacks in the region. We’ll have soldiers assigned in Jordan. When you have three service members pass away, scores of others injured, we just have to remain calm for the soldiers. We are going into harm’s way. But our main focus is force protection, not only for our allies but for ourselves.”

©2024 StarTribune. Visit startribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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