Crystal Nickel beamed with pride as her husband, Kevin Nickel, Jr., marched into the Cambridge-Isanti High School gymnasium. But inside, she felt like breaking down in tears. While she knew for 18 months this day was coming, reality had not yet set in.
Crystal was one of hundreds who filled the CIHS gymnasium on Sunday, March 3, for the deployment ceremony in honor of the 149 soldiers being deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the name of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
The 850th HEC of the Minnesota National Guard is a horizontal construction company in the U.S. Army and headquartered in Cambridge, with the 682nd Engineer Battalion as their higher headquarters based in Willmar.
The Minnesota soldiers deploying from the 850th HEC will conduct missions such as: repair, maintenance and road construction, emplace culverts, hauling, force protection and limited clearing operations. Additionally, the company will provide construction training to the Afghan National Army.
Soldiers from the 850th HEC represent 100 communities throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, with one soldier living as far away as Texas.
Six soldiers from Isanti who were deployed included Sgt. Thomas Gehrke, Sgt. Mitchell Perry, Spc. Davis Sjoberg and Sgt. Derek Zoerb; four from Cambridge included Spc. Alexander Kelley, Spc. Christoffer Lund and Spc. Kevin Nickel, Jr.; Pfc. Jesse Pearson, from Braham, and one soldier from Dalbo. (Not all the soldiers’ names are listed as some didn’t want to be named).
The average age of the deploying soldiers is 27 years old. The youngest soldier is 18 and the oldest is 55. This is the first deployment for 73 percent (110) of the 149 soldiers. Twenty-six percent (39) have previously deployed. For some, this is the second, third and/or fourth deployment.
National Guard relays confidence
“We have a very professional group of soldiers that are ready to respond to our nation’s call,” said Army Capt. Michael J. Thompson, 850th HEC Commander. “I am very confident in these soldiers, as they are the most qualified soldiers to perform this mission. Over the past few months we have trained hard and formed a strong bond where individuals can rely on each other for strength and mentorship.”
“Our company is an engineer unit that will provide heavy equipment, hauling and maintenance support for several forward operating bases throughout Afghanistan,” said Army 1st Sgt. Jeffry C. Taylor, 850th Horizontal Engineer Company First Sergeant.
Thompson thanked Isanti County for its support.
“It has been amazing to watch the connection that has been formed between the community and the battalion,” Thompson said. “The Isanti County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program has been amazing, and the community has really embraced us. Typically, when you put 3,000 motorcyclists on the streets, it’s something that may case trouble. In this case, people line the streets waving flags and showing patriotism, during the very successful Patriot Rides that are held in this area.”
The battalion appreciates all the support it has been given.
“I’m confident you are the best union for this mission,” Thompson said. “We have an amazing community here and the support has been amazing through Isanti County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, Patriot Ride, VFW’s and other organizations. Families, you are our rock. I would also like to thank all the soldiers for their hard work. We are going to do some amazing things.”
Lt. Col. Sol Sukut, Commander of the 682nd Engineer Battalion, has full confidence in the soldiers’ abilities.
“It has been my privilege to serve with this unit the past couple of years,” Sukut said. “We were notified 18 months ago this day was coming. I’ve seen you in training and am confident in your abilities. May God bless your deployment safely, and may God bless you a safe return.”
Isanti County promises support
Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer wished the soldiers all the best.
“I wanted to tell you that I think I can understand and share with you the feelings of a grateful citizen, city and nation,” Palmer said. “Soldiers, I’m so inspired by your sense of duty, dedication and commitment as you leave. Your service will inspire us all to be better citizens. Your willingness to protect our community and country is nothing less than a blessing. We will be with you in our prayers and support. I want you to know that taking care of your families here will be the orders we have.”
Palmer thanked the soldiers for their service.
“You are many things besides soldiers,” Palmer said. “You are teachers, coaches, comrades, peace makers and your soldiers of course. We owe you so much. How can we ever thank you, but to say thank you for your service. As you leave, we wish you great success in your travels.”
Retired Minnesota State Command Sgt. Maj. Bob Boone, chair of Isanti County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, gave the soldiers and their families their full support.
“This is a very significant day in the city of Cambridge,” Boone said. “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon came to this community five years ago and we’ve spent a lot of time and energy so we can support you—and we are here for you and your families to support you before, during and after your deployment.”
Also, throughout the beginning of the week, Isanti County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon presented each solider with a camo quilt and bed roll during special presentations, and also provided a brunch for them and their families on Wednesday morning.
Families pray for safe return
Crystal Nickel, whose husband Kevin serves as a specialist in the National Guard, live in the Cambridge area. They were married in 2009 and have been a couple for over five years. Kevin is a 2001 graduate of North Branch High School.
“When we first found out he was being deployed he was excited; however, I was scared,” Crystal said. “He has been a member of the National Guard for two years. He had just completed basic training and AIT training and was told he was being deployed. Kevin initially wanted to join the active Army but his mother really wouldn’t let him. So with the economic downfall and not being able to find job, he said he wanted to join the National Guard and asked me my thoughts about it.”
Crystal had mixed feelings during the deployment ceremony.
“I’m very proud of him and very proud he decided to go into the service and join the National Guard so he didn’t have to leave his family,” Crystal said. “During the deployment ceremony I was feeling that I wanted to break down in tears. I really hadn’t brought this back to reality until this past week, but I know I have to stay strong for our children.”
Jim and Chris Brandberg’s son, Sgt. Derek Zoerb, was one of the deployed soldiers. Derek is the third of the Brandberg’s children being deployed as Derek’s older brother, Dallas, is in the Army Reserves and served in Iraq, and his younger brother, Dylan, is with the National Guard based in Seattle.
“I thought the deployment ceremony went very well,” said Jim. “It was very uplifting to see all the community support.”
This will be Derek’s first deployment, who is a 2004 graduate of Cambridge-Isanti High School and joined the National Guard in 2009.
“We’ve known about the deployment for a while, and Derek is pretty excited about this,” Jim said. “Serving in the National Guard has been really good for him, especially boot camp.”
Chris said the deployment ceremony was emotional.
“It was a nice ceremony and I appreciated what everyone said,” Chris said. “It was nice to see all of the young men in a group before they leave. It was hard to see all the young women crying, as I’ve been there before. If I could say anything, I’d like to encourage all those young women to get a good support group around you as this isn’t an easy thing.”
Chris explained she has “faith in the Lord,” and has prayer cards made to hand out to her Christian friends and others to remind them to say prayers for those who are deployed.
“We are really proud of all our children and I just hope everyone comes back safe and sound,” Chris said. “Derek really has an excellent attitude and is looking forward to this deployment. He’s in a good place for this opportunity and is ready for the challenge. And I have my letters and care packages ready to send off to him when he arrives in Afghanistan.”
For more information on the Minnesota National Guard, visit www.MinnesotaNationalGuard.org.