By Renee Richardson
Their job was to lead the way for safe passage in a dangerous landscape.
On a balmy, breezy Sunday afternoon in Brainerd, U.S. Army Reserve soldiers were recognized for their heroism and the uncounted lives saved by their efforts.
Their family, friends and supporters gathered at Central Lakes College (CLC) to honor members of the 309th Engineering Co. Mobilization Augmentation Company (MAC) in a Welcome Home Warrior Citizen Ceremony.
Soldiers of the 309th MAC left for Afghanistan in September of 2010. Their job was to clear explosive devices to create safe passage for others. They cleared nearly 200 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the Army reported the soldiers encountered more than 100 enemy attacks. They were people who led the way to try to find those roadside bombs.
The unit was recommended for 96 Combat Action Badges, 46 Purple Hearts, and two Army Commendation Medals with Valor devices.
“That’s the most combat badges I’ve seen in one formation in my life,” said James Lundell, U.S. Army Reserve ambassador.
At Sunday’s ceremony, four soldiers received Bronze Stars and four were recognized with Purple Hearts. And 42 of the soldiers received an American flag presented for their first deployment. The soldiers worked with the U.S. Marines clearing roadways in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. They worked patrols and had multiple-day missions often with limited communication with their family at home.
The unit’s 1st Sgt. Steve Jelinek said many of the injuries involved concussions and he’s glad to see more attention given to the seriousness of that head injury, even if it is mostly because of sports. Jelinek noted the last mission ended just a few days before they were to return. Jelinek paused to collect himself as he spoke of one of the men they worked with who later died from wounds suffered in an IED explosion.
Maj. Gen. Paul Crandall, commanding general, said the group stands on the shoulders of those who served before — veterans of Vietnam, Korea and World War II. Crandall also thanked family members for their sacrifice.
“Well done,” Crandall said of the 309th soldiers. “We could not be more proud of you. You performed your mission with great skill. And in addition to the quality of your mission you took care of each other and brought each other back.”
The unit returned home without loss of life.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, said it was an honor to be with homegrown heroes.
“When our soldiers return home it’s the sweetest homecoming of all,” Klobuchar said. “You truly represent the best of our country. You have made our state incredibly proud.”
Klobuchar said the unit had more IED finds during its deployment than any other task force in Afghanistan. The deployment was difficult, the mission daunting and the stakes high, Klobuchar said, but the soldiers acted in the true spirit of the Army with personal courage and selfless service.
“It really hits home the danger they were in every day,” Klobuchar said after the ceremony. Klobuchar said she’s supported increases in health care benefits for veterans and more research is being done for traumatic brain injuries.
The unit has about 80 soldiers from around the state and 50 from other units in 12 different states. Brainerd Mayor James Wallin and Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson took part in the welcome home.
“This is the unit I spent 26 years in myself,” said Olson, a former platoon sergeant.
The soldiers met prolonged applause as they marched into the gym. Patriot Guard members lined the gym’s perimeter with flags in hand. As the soldiers lined up, a child’s voice could be heard from the bleachers saying “daddy.”
The U.S. Army Reserve soldiers returned last August, but their ceremony to mark their achievements were still an emotional one.
As she waited for her step-son, Spc. Jerry Oliver, to enter the Central Lakes College gymnasium, Martha Oliver said this was better than the much harder deployment ceremony.
“That was rough, really rough on everybody,” she said.
Her husband David, a Bertha native and Jerry’s father, spent 16 years in the Army, 11 of those years as a cook sometimes feeding 3,000 troops. Their younger son, Edward, served two tours in Iraq. Now they make their home in Pillsbury, near Swanville. They said the year-long experience changed their son in ways that are difficult to describe. Members of the unit said they are still adjusting to being home. Lundell told the soldiers not to hesitate to ask for assistance.
Jerry Oliver was looking forward to a juicy steak and macaroni salad upon his return. He said his reintegration was as good as could be expected. Now he said he isn’t sure what he’d like to see in Afghanistan but he watches the news daily.
“It would be nice to see everyone come home,” he said. “Eventually that will happen.”
And Jerry Oliver, 34, said he knows they made a difference while they were there keeping others safe.
Sgt. Aaron Pearson, 25, Anoka, was one of the Purple Heart recipients. He said talking about his experience was easier as this wasn’t his first deployment. And he noted there is a lot of support out there for returning soldiers.
“We lead the way to have safe passage,” Pearson said of their work in Afghanistan. “It was a hard job. There wasn’t a single mission that went by easy.”
Pearson was injured in two separate incidents. He said the sheer force of an explosion even in an armored vehicle is immense. “It rocks your brain like crazy.”
Soldiers suffered concussions, hearing loss, back injuries.
Spc. Timothy Brown, 20, Warroad, also received a Purple Heart. He said it has been a little bit of a struggle to adjust. When he was home at first he didn’t want to be around others. He said his wife was the one who helped him through the deployment.
“I wouldn’t have done as well as I did over there if not for her,” he said. “It makes all the hardship worth it.”
Now Brown said he just hopes people won’t forget about the service men and women who are still there making those sacrifices.