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Soldiers and families mark one year after homecoming

Monday, July 16, 2012

After the meal at the local National Guard unit's family picnic Saturday, several soldiers received awards and promotions regarding combat or training activity in the past year. Here Capt. Derek Kinnison (left) presents Josh Pickner, of Sheldon, with his promotion to Sergeant 1st Class.
Almost one year after returning from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan, members of the Le Mars National Guard Unit were still dealing with sweltering sun Saturday.

But on this particular day, they were surrounded by their spouses, children and friends, grilling, laughing, talking and sharing a meal together.

Members of Troop C First Squadron of the 113th Cavalry in the Iowa National Guard gather with their families once each year for an annual picnic.

Grilling for the whole crew, Josh Luck and First Sgt. Krogman prepare the main course for the family picnic for the local National Guard unit on Saturday.
Capt. Derek Kinnison, of Verdigre, Neb., said the family picnic gives a chance for the soldiers in the unit and their families to come together in a more relaxed setting.

"When we come to drill, we don't know each other's kids," Kinnison said. "We're all regular guys outside of our uniforms. We've got families. It's great to see."

And the family picnic breaks up the monotony of always going to drill at hot, insect-infested training sites, he added with a grin.

Tables at the picnic shelter in the Le Mars Municipal Park were packed with soldiers and their families, enjoying grilled burgers and conversation together.

Monica Hanson, who was the family readiness group coordinator for the local unit while it was deployed, said the unit holds family picnics like this each year.

"It's good to get the families reunited and once a year just see everyone and visit," she said.

During the picnic, several soldiers received awards from their recent deployment and their trainings throughout the year.

"We get together to see what the guys have accomplished," Hanson said.

Receiving awards were:

* Sgt. Nicholas Hanson, of rural Le Mars, who received an army achievement medal. He was also presented a saber as we was being discharged out of unit.

* Spc. Seth Stultz, of Sioux City, received an army good conduct medal.

* Staff Sgt. Joseph Desmet, of Rock Valley, received a saber for 20 years with unit.

* Staff Sgt. Travis Waterman, of Hawarden, received a meritorious service medal and a saber as he is retiring from the unit.

Those promoted were:

* Josh Pickner, of Sheldon, to Sergeant 1st Class

* David Collins, of Rapid City, S.D., to Staff Sergeant.

The year has been a big one for the soldiers who returned from Afghanistan last summer.

Andrew VanEs, of Orange City, said his past year has been hectic.

He started attending Northwestern College in Orange City for physical education immediately after returning from the Afghanistan deployment last summer.

"I went from one extreme to the other," VanEs said. "I was staying up late and doing missions, and now I'm staying up late and studying."

John Tracy, of Sheldon, said the last year has been wonderful.

"It's been good to be back and see everybody again," he said.

Caleb Wilson, of Paullina, has been home a few years since his most recent, and third, deployment to Iraq.

"It's challenging and good," he said. "It's hard to relate to people when they don't know what you did there. And it can be hard learning how to talk to civilians again."

On the good side, Wilson has started a livestock farm and another agricultural businesses since he returned to the U.S.

"I like to stay busy," he said. "It keeps my mind off things."

Kinnison said he believes it's been a good year.

The year after a deployment is called a "reset year," he explained.

A reset year is a year for restoring the unit's readiness to respond after serving in a significant deployment.

This year, the soldiers will be training on individual skills.

Next year, they will move into more large-scale training.

"Training will become more challenging as we move forward," Kinnison said. "It will be more complex."

For example, he said the squad will be doing live-fire exercises next year, which involve using real ammunition or equipment in a combat-like setting.

In the past year, the National Guard unit's focus hasn't only been on training, he noted.

"The biggest thing is getting the guys reintegrated into their homes," Kinnison said.

One emphasis was helping all soldiers attend a Yellow Ribbon Event, designed by the U.S. Department of Defense to help soldiers reintegrate following deployment.

At these events, information is available to soldiers and families about health care, education or training opportunities, and financial and legal benefits.

The unit's leaders are also making sure soldiers who had medical concerns following deployment are getting those things taken care of.

"Sometimes we need someone to tell us 'it's OK; go get it fixed,'" Kinnison said. "We follow up on medical things monthly, to make sure they're seeing the doctor and not just falling off into the abyss."

And soldiers in the unit provide support to each other, too.

Kinnison said the local National Guard unit is pretty tight-knit.

"I know all these guys. We've all come up together," he said. "We're like a family."

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