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Deploying guard members called brave, selfless, generous

Local Boy Scouts stand and cheer on National Guard troops as they drive down 80th Street Friday morning. (Bulletin photo by Patricia Drey Busse)2 / 2

Hundreds of family and friends packed the Cottage Grove Ice Arena Friday for an emotional send-off to the Cottage Grove-based Minnesota National Guard unit heading to Iraq this weekend, hearing from a thankful Gov. Tim Pawlenty who called the soldiers and their families "brave, strong and courageous."

The 204th Area Support Medical Company will leave Saturday for Fort Lewis, Washington, the first stop on a 12-month tour of duty that will take them to Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.

There, the Minnesota National Guard unit will provide medical care to detainees and coalition forces.

But before embarking on its mission, the 82-person company was honored with a rousing 45-minute ceremony and Patriot Guard Rider-escorted procession down 80th Street -- which was lined with flag-waving Boy Scouts and residents -- to a picnic for Guard members, family and friends at the Cottage Grove National Guard Armory.

Pawlenty's short speech drew lively cheers and enthusiastic applause after the governor spoke of the bravery, selflessness and sacrifice shown by the Minnesota National Guard members giving up civilian life for a 12-month tour in the Iraqi desert.

"They are taking a year of their life," Pawlenty said, setting aside jobs, families and the comforts of home for duty abroad. "That is an act of incredible generosity, incredible love. We are grateful to each and every one of you."

Approximately half the members of the 204th are residents of south Washington County or Dakota County. More than one-quarter of the company's soldiers are making their second, third or fourth deployment.

The latest assignment is the third for Cottage Grove Junior High science teacher and Denmark Township resident Maj. Paul Peterson. For him, this ceremony felt different -- this time he was on the stage full of dignitaries, addressing the 81 other members of the 204th as a veteran of two previous tours in the desert.

Peterson said the ceremony served as a powerful reminder for the deploying Guard members of the support for them at home.

"It's a huge momentum-builder," he said. "It's going to get us out the door on an adrenaline rush, an emotional high."

Mike Haas and Sean Doheney, a pair of 23-year-old friends from Cottage Grove who are both making their second deployment, said they enjoyed the outpouring of support on display at Friday's ceremony. The encouragement is good to see, Doheney said, because "a lot of times you forget that it's there."

The send-off was the first for 21-year-old Jacob Schmidt of Rush City, who is deploying for the first time. He said the celebration helped him grasp the seriousness of the 204th's mission.

Schmidt will leave behind his fiancée, Heather Foster. She succinctly summed up the sentiment expressed by Pawlenty earlier in the day when he told the family members of Guard soldiers that, in essence, they're serving a 12-month tour of duty, too.

"It's pretty tough," Foster said, "but I'm extremely proud of him."

See the July 15 print edition of the South Washington County Bulletin for more on this story.