July 30, 2007

Welcome home, troops

By Matt Kane
Sports Editor

American food. American beer. American cars. American soil.

Growing up in Delano, Luke Braith, Sam Royce and Bob Kiscaden probably took for granted the tastes of hot dogs and Budweiser, the feel of a Ford Mustang, and the green grasses that made up their backyards. That is until all three took an air trip across the Atlantic, eventually landing in the brown desert of Iraq.

“It was one solid brown color everywhere you looked,” Braith said. “And it smelled like poop.”

The lack of rain in Minnesota has left much of the vegetation around the area brown, but the color that remains was a sight for sore eyes for Braith, Royce and Kiscaden, who returned home to Delano July 20, and for Dan McDonald, who returned home July 26.

“The greatest thing about coming back is the colors. Everything over there is bland,” Kiscaden said from his cell phone Thursday. “Minnesota is probably the best place to come back to because of the colors. My wife’s flower gardens are great. It’s just a shock to the senses.”

The colored landscape also caught the eye of Royce.

“This is fantastic — it’s green,” Royce said from inside the Delano American Legion, just minutes after he, Braith and Kiscaden arrived atop a Delano fire truck. “Everybody is happy to see us.”

“And the beer tastes delicious,” Braith added.

For 16 months, Braith, Royce, Kiscaden and McDonald were void of green grass and cold beer in Iraq, where they served with the National Guard unit the First Brigade Combat Team of the Thirty-Fourth Infantry Division, the Red Bulls.

The team of more than 2,600 men and women left Minnesota in September 2005, and departed for Iraq in March of 2006. The 16 months in Iraq is more time than any other military unit has spent in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

That deployment for Braith, Royce and Kiscaden ended July 13 and on July 17 for McDonald.

The first three touched down in Maine, otherwise known as American soil.

“In the States, it was 8 a.m. in Maine,” Braith explained of when the airplane touched down. “The smell and feel of the rain was really nice. We went outside and played hacky sack, and enjoyed the nice breeze and the nice smells.”

Royce echoed his friend’s take on returning to the United States.

“I was really excited to go outside and sit in the grass,” he said. “That’s what everybody did.”

After touching down in Maine, Braith, Royce and Kiscaden immediately flew to Volk Field in Wisconsin and then headed to Fort McCoy (also in Wisconsin), where they stayed until July 20. It was that day that the three Delano soldiers would finally be home.

Paraded through the Twin Cities metro area by The Patriot Guard, local, county, and state law enforcement officers, and supporters, the contingency of vehicles headed for Delano finally broke off from the rest of the Minnesota pack in Bloomington, and eventually headed west on Highway 12 toward home.

From Maple Plain to Delano, a Delano fire truck served as a limousine for Braith, Royce and Kiscaden, who rode in the open air, waving to all who welcomed them home.

The biggest welcome for the three was at the American Legion, where several dozen people cheered as the troop-carrying fire truck pulled into the parking lot around the noon hour.

“It was awesome,” said Braith. “Riding the fire truck; I didn’t know any of that was going to happen. I enjoyed it.”

“It was really nice that they wanted to recognize us like that,” Royce said. “It was way more than I thought it would be.”

Waiting for the three were friends, family members, veterans, complete strangers, and the American Legion Post 377 color guard.

One of those color guard members was Korean War veteran Dale Vanderlinden. Oversized mirror sunglasses covered Vanderlinden’s eyes, protecting them from the bright sunshine, but one didn’t need to see those eyes to know they were filled with pride over Braith, Royce and Kiscaden’s service.

“Very much a sense of pride,” he said. “Of course, I’ve always been a backer of the troops. Even in the Vietnam era I didn’t have a problem. There is a lot of unpopularity, but you have to support what they are doing.”

Pride that comes from a connection veterans have with each other.

“Being a veteran, there is a brotherhood aspect to it. I feel there is a connection between all veterans, even if some weren’t close to combat.” said Vanderlinden, who served on Guam, Okinawa and Japan in the Navy as an aviation electronics technician from 1951-1955. “There is a closeness between veterans that we don’t have with other people. Young and old, alike, if you are a veteran, you are always a veteran.”

Even though Vanderlinden served more than 50 years ago, he has a direct connection with the soldiers of today.

“It has special meaning to me because I have a grandson who came back last October from Iraq, and he goes back, again, this September,” he said, speaking of Marine Corp Sgt. Erik Vanderlinden.

The older Vanderlinden said his return home from Japan included hitching a ride with another soldier who was headed to Iowa, and being picked up by his brother, who drove him to his home in Osceola.

The greeting of Braith, Royce and Kiscaden was a little more celebratory. People hugged, kissed and verbally gave their thanks to the three guests of honor, and Braith, Royce and Kiscaden returned the praise.

“We appreciate all you’ve done,” Kiscaden told the dozen or so Patriot Guard members on hand, then turning to member Darren Orr. “So we want to give you this flag we flew.”

On a lighter note, Orr presented Kiscaden with a brightly colored bicycle helmet; an appropriate gift for Kiscaden, whose only war injury occurred when he slipped in the shower and knocked himself unconscious.

“It was phenomenal. There is no other way to describe it,” Kiscaden said of the greeting he and the other two soldiers received. “It seemed a little much at the time, but I’m glad they did it. It was a lot of fun.”

Six days after Kiscaden, Braith and Royce were welcomed home, the City of Delano welcomed home McDonald, who arrived at Fort McCoy July 17.

“It was all really great,” 46-year-old McDonald said. “The Patriot Guard met us at the (Wisconsin) state border, escorted us to Camp Ripley, and then we got a personal escort from Buffalo to Delano. Everything’s been great.”

Home again

Braith, Royce, Kiscaden and McDonald are falling back into civilian life in the United States, which isn’t easy when one does something a certain way for 16 months.

“For the most part, it’s been easy to jump back into the swing of things,” Braith said. “One thing that is hard to get used to is certain jokes and language. (The soldiers) have a pretty sick humor in Iraq.”

Kiscaden, too, has had to pay attention to the language he uses, not so much because he may offend someone but because he wants to speak so people can understand him

“Talking to people at a civilian level instead of with all the acronyms you use to use to describe things,” he said has been a challenge. “I can’t do that here. People want to know what you did, but you have to stop and think about what you are saying, because it’s a different mind-set.”

Braith and Royce were both gunners and drivers on a Humvee, escorting food and fuel supplies. They both admitted getting used to driving a commercial car in the United States has been somewhat challenging.

“When I’m driving, I still take some of the same precautions that aren’t necessary because of the environment,” Royce said.

Braith traded in his Humvee for a Toyota Camry.

“Learning how to drive a regular car again is fun,” said Braith. “I was already backed into on my first day back.”

For Kiscaden, who resides in St. Cloud, the biggest challenge has been reacquainting himself with his family life, which includes wife, Naomi, and daughter, Elizabeth.

“It’s different,” he said. “I left a 3-month old and came home to a 2-year old. Its been busy.”

Training their brains to forget about habits that were necessary while in Iraq poses a problem.

“I look for it all the time,” Braith said of the M16 he carried around for more than a year. “I’m getting better at it, but I still find myself, when I’m done with a meal, looking to pick it up.”

That same habit has struck Kiscaden, as has being a leader to a pack of gung-ho 20-year-olds.

“If I get up and leave somewhere real quick, I’m used to checking for a weapon. And I’m used to checking on all my guys,” he said. “I had a lot of guys underneath me. Now I have to worry about a 2-year-old. I haven’t decided which is worse, the 20-year-olds or the 2-year-old.”

The trip to Iraq was the second for Kiscaden. The 35-year-old entered the Army when he was 17, and, with the 82nd Airborne, crossed the ocean for the first time a year later for Desert Storm. He described the two Iraq wars he served in.

“I was 18 and just turned 19 the day we moved to the border of Iraq,” he said of his first tour in Iraq. “You feel invincible and nothing will happen, but this time, I had a wife to come back to and that goal. The transition to come back was easier because I had my wife to come back to.”

McDonald, too, was a veteran of serving overseas before his most recent trip to Iraq. He served in Bosnia in 2003 and 2004.

“When I was in Bosnia, I did more patrols and did more talking to people,” he described. “In Iraq, I was on a recovery team and picked up vehicles that were destroyed.”

Like Kiscaden, McDonald is looking forward to being a husband and father again.

“It’s a big relief,” the 23-year National Guard member said of knowing he will not be deployed again. “I have three kids — 10, 12 and 14. I missed the last couple years with them, so I’m looking forward to spending lots of time with them.”

Plans of spending time with his wife, Diane, and his three kids started immediately for McDonald, who arrived at the Delano American Legion a little after 4 p.m. Thursday.

“We are going to Disney for a week in August,” he said over the phone, just 10 minutes after his arrival. “And we are going to watch my son play soccer tonight.”

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