CITIZEN OF THE YEAR
"The best part about leaving on a deployment is that you get to come home and do... this..." grins a soldier in Iowa National Guard fatigues, sweeping his sundress-clad sweetheart into his arms for a showy kiss.
"Ahhh," he says. "That's what I've been waiting for."
As the U.S. involvement in Iraq comes to an end this month, the Pilot-Tribune's annual Citizen of the Year is not a citizen at all, but an entire company of citizen soldiers who have sacrificed greatly for their country - the Iowa National Guard "Red Bulls" based in Storm Lake - some of whom have been called to a year or more of deployment three times, stateside and in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.
G Company, 334th Brigade Support Battalion - better known by the name a Storm Lake crowd of close to 1,000 was chanting during a homecoming ceremony in July as nearly 100 area soldiers returned from Afghanistan - "Red Bulls... Red Bulls... RED BULLS!"
In their most recent call to duty, the local soldiers were training and supporting Afghan Military and Police troops and humanitarian missions, often in combat zones and extreme conditions, with zero casualties. Even their training was arduous, taking them from muggy swamps to high desert before shipping out overseas.
In the crowd, handmade posters marked the homecoming. "You are our heroes," and "Welcome home, Daddy."
Andrea Brenner, of Humboldt, went to Mississippi during this training to marry her soldier Jay just before they shipped out to Afghanistan around Thanksgiving time 2010.
"It was a nervous time - scared, excited, nervous wreck, but super happy," she said of the return. "These last days were very emotional. You would look at the clock every 20 minuted and try to will it to move faster so they would get here. These guys worked extra hard to stay in touch with their loved ones back home no matter how hard their work was. Even when they are away, that just strengthens a relationship."
Cory Sievers celebrated his 20th birthday while on deployment. "He's got a good head on his shoulders. We are proud of him," his mother, Sonja, said. "We're just glad they are home safe, and now we need to get them back to real life."
Tate Anderson, a Peterson native, was called to his first deployment in Kosovo while he was dating his now-wife Emily. He was able to wrangle a two-week leave from Afghanistan just in time to see his son born in March. The baby held hard to his father's uniform shirt in tiny fists after the ceremony as the two cooed at each other. "He's talking to me. He's sure telling me his story," Tate said. He said he is proud to have served, but looks forward to spending his time with his family, and hunting and fishing.
John Blaha's plans were first a nap, and then a long ride on his new motorcycle. For others, job one was a meal at a hometown restaurant. Kyle Coombs was already making plans to return to college. "We hope he stays, but we know that this may happen again, and if it does, we'll deal with it," mother Donna says.
The platoon of dignitaries gathered for the event were mercifully brief in their remarks, each searching for the words meaningful enough to say thank you to those who had sacrificed a year of their lives to the Operation enduring Freedom mission, and finding there were none.
"You can be proud, soldiers, to say 'mission accomplished.' On behalf of the entire community, we thank you for all you have done. You have accomplished things even beyond what we back home have heard of," Mayor Jon Kruse said.
Guard brass said that the enthusiastic crowd was "great testimony" to the caring and support for the Guard soldiers and heir work, and urged them to "tell the story" - that is, to share what has been done and the roles they and their fellow local soldiers played in the mission. "Don't be humble," Col. Bill Carlson told the soldiers.
Sgt. Louie DeRoos of Aurelia had done just that, sharing the experiences in Afghanistan with Pilot-Tribune readers in messages from Laghman Province.
The Governor of the Province had personally given thanks for the efforts of the coalition that included the Storm Lake soldiers.
Morale among the soldiers remained high, DeRoos said, despite the sometimes nerve-wracking work of running convoys, maintaining around-the-clock security and training the Afghans. "We are making leaps and bounds over the enemy and taking out key locations that [the U.S.] was never able to obtain because of Taliban strongholds," DeRoos wrote late in the eight-year involvement.
Perhaps just as importantly, the Storm Lake soldiers took on humanitarian efforts, often volunteering for missions to deliver much-needed food, clothing and supplies to needy areas, orphanages and restored schools. From the care packages they received from home, candy and trinkets were shared with children.
As the local soldiers moved about on duty, the youngest Afghans would wave to them or give a "thumbs up" - which offset the stark reality of suicide bombs and small arms fire ringing out around Kabul.
If there is anybody the troops wanted to impress, it was the children - the next generation of the Middle East, the Iowa Guard veteran said.
"We never feel alone here," DeRoose said. "Wee have left our families there at home, wives , kids, parents, girlfriends, knowing we will miss out on birthdays, weddings, graduations, funerals and ceelebrations with friends and families, to get the job done. We have another family; a family of brothers and sisters who are going through the same thing together."
For their sacrifices and courage, all of the Red Bulls and the full-time military personnel from our area who have served in the wake of 9/11 are our 2012 Citizens of the Year. It's good to have you home, Red Bulls.
The Honor Roll of Pilot-Tribune Citizens of the Year
1991 - Wilbur Tucker, founder of the Living Heritage Tree Museum
1992 - Dr. T.E. Shea, lifelong environmentalist
1993 - Ron Dierwechter, medical missionary
1994 - Kim Weiland, leader in family health and child abuse prevention
1995 - Youth recreation leader Hugh Perry, ag conservationist Jeff Kestel, retiring BVU President Keith Briscoe
1996 - Leaders of a Civic Center proposal Troy and Grace Ivey, former Mr. Goodfellow leader Connie Herpst, philanthropist Kermit Buntrock, Community Education leader Ann Mackrill-Wilson
1997 - Storm Lake Police Officers. A memorial award was given for Lauro Ibarra, who died attempting a fire rescue.
1998 - Steve Roth, leader of Lake Preservation Assoc.
1999 - Storm Lake Diversity Task Force and La Amistad
2000 - Gateway Lighthouse committee
2001 - Hector Velez, multicultural leader
2002 - Kim Weiland, Ashley Hammen, Gwen Bergendoff and Linda Kay for volunteer efforts
2003 - Storm Lake soldiers serving their first call of duty in the war on terrorism
2004 - Joan Spooner, Upper Des Moines Opportunity and Adopt a Family
2005 - Mike Wilson, Project Awaysis leader
2006 - Mike Hanna, Storm Lake High School Principal
2007 - Sara Monroy Huddleston, SL City Council and anti-abuse leader
2008 - Chuck Eddy, retiring Buena Vista County Sheriff
2009 - Rhonda Christensen, leader of ISU Extension and BV Fair efforts
2010 - Ron Stevenson, Witter Gallery and Santa's Castle director