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OUR OPINION : Coming home

Northwestern Minnesota - normally a stoic and unflappable place - will erupt in cheers, whoops, sirens and shouts this week as local members of the Minnesota National Guard come home from Iraq.

Northwestern Minnesota - normally a stoic and unflappable place - will erupt in cheers, whoops, sirens and shouts this week as local members of the Minnesota National Guard come home from Iraq.

Slowly but steadily, some 2,600 members of the "Red Bull" infantry division are making their way back to their home armories. This week it's Crookston and Thief River Falls' turn, as B Company, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry is scheduled to return.

The welcome they'll get (and the parades that are sure to follow) will be well-deserved. As news stories have reported and family members know too well, the Minnesotans completed the longest continuous deployment in Iraq of any U.S. military unit.

But as news stories have not reported and family members may not fully know, the guardsmen also did Minnesota proud during their combat service. Michael Yon tells the story. Yon himself is a exceptional fellow: A former Green Beret, Yon is a freelance journalist who embeds with various combat units in Iraq and files dispatches from the front lines.

His skill, sensitivity, and unswerving devotion to America's fighting forces make him the Ernie Pyle of the Iraq war, as any reader of Yon's blog ( www.michaelyon-online.com/ ) will agree.

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Here is his chronicle of his December or January meeting in Iraq with the Red Bulls' 1st Brigade Combat Team, of which B Company is a part:

"We met up with members of the Minnesota National Guard during one of the stops on the patrol. I don't know what the Minnesota soldiers were eating for breakfast, but the first thing that Marine Sgt. Maj. O'Connell said about the Minnesota National Guard was something to the effect that this was the best bunch he'd ever seen.

"I had to clear my ears and ask him to repeat that. I seemed to have had an auditory hallucination because high praise coming from a Marine sergeant major in Anbar province, who knows what competent troops are, just didn't seem right when it was heaped on the Army.

"When I asked for clarification, Sgt. Maj. O'Connell not only stood by it, but he started listing the reasons why this particular Minnesota National Guard unit deserves special recognition.

"Any notion that a Marine sergeant major was giving the unit high praise as a gesture of respect for an Army colleague was quickly disabused by Mellinger when he added that Sgt. Maj. Howard, the top enlisted Marine in Iraq, had also extended congratulations. Mellinger said he was going to contact the command sergeant major of the National Guard to make sure it was known how highly regarded these soldiers are by the people who have come to rely upon their effectiveness in one of the most dangerous outposts in the world.

"The Minnesota soldiers stood there so quietly that Mellinger must have thought they didn't believe him. With characteristic bluntness, Mellinger assured them of the veracity of the praise he was relaying, by saying something like, 'I'm too old to blow smoke.'

"Mellinger affirmed that this was honestly the highest congratulations he could confer. In my experience of having seen Mellinger interface with, say, 50 different units during the month total I've spent with him, be they Marines, soldiers, sailors, Special Forces or Air Force, I have never seen him give an endorsement like the one he extended to the Minnesota National Guard.

"If the citizens of Minnesota should be faced with some calamity, I'd say the governor can rest assured that the state has an able posse."

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Mellinger, by the way, is more formally known as U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Mellinger, the top enlisted soldier of Multi-National Forces Iraq.

One more excerpt, this one drawn from the congressional resolution honoring the guardsmen's service.

During its deployment, the 1st Brigade Combat Team:

-- Completed 5,200 combat logistics patrols, secured 2.4 million convoy miles, and discovered 462 improvised explosive devices prior to detonation.

-- Processed more than 1.5 million vehicles and 400,000 Iraqis into entry control points without any insurgent penetrations.

-- Captured more than 400 suspected insurgents;.

-- Completed 137 reconstruction projects.

-- Saw more than 1,400 members of the 1st Brigade Combat Team re-enlist during deployment, and 21 members became U.S. citizens during deployment.

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Soldiers, we thank you and salute you. And welcome home.

- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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