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You might not know it, but West St. Paul is home to its own unit of the Minnesota National Guard. They’re stationed right on Robert Street at the National Guard Armory—A Company of the 135th Infantry, 2nd Battalion.
In June, nearly 700 soldiers from the 135th Infantry, 2nd Battalion—including West St. Paul’s A Company—will deploy to the Horn of Africa in support of Operation Enduring Freedom for approximately one year.
“Our battalion will serve as part of a Task Force to improve security posture at U.S. installations and forward operating bases in the AFRICOM region, while maintaining a rapidly deployable force prepared to respond to crisis,” said Commander Lt. Col. Charles Rankin in a press release.
Back in January, I met with Captain Jeff Sabatke to learn more about the Minnesota National Guard.
“We stand ready regardless of what’s going on in the world.”Captain Jeff Sabatke
History & Background
The 135th Infantry division has a storied history, going all the way back to the Civil War and the first volunteers to serve.
Today the National Guard is made up of part-time soldiers, unlike the regular Army. They live and work in our community and generally train for the “one weekend a month, two weeks a year” (though in recent years it’s been a greater commitment than that). They’re ready to be called up for emergencies, such as the 2014 flooding in North Dakota, and deployments.
The 135th was last called up for a one-year deployment in 2011 and 2012 to Iraq and Kuwait. As a light infantry division, their duty back then included guarding a border checkpoint and protecting convoys. Thankfully they didn’t get into any combat situations and everybody came home.
“We were pretty fortunate,” Captain Jeff Sabatke says. “We were able to conduct our mission and everybody came home.”
Those “one weekend a month” training sessions will typically find the more than 100 soldiers of A Company brushing up on their skills. In warmer months that often means heading to places like Fort Ripley for exercises. In the winter, it often means returning to the West St. Paul Armory as they practice with weapons systems, radios, and more.
Lately it’s all about preparing for their deployment. More than being proficient with each piece of equipment, it needs to become second nature: “Don’t think about it, do it,” says Sabatke.
That increased training and now deployment means increased hardship for the soldiers. Their jobs are legally protected, but it’s still hard on families.
“That’s where communities can give back,” Sabatke says. “If you know your next door neighbor is deployed, how can you help that person out? At least reach out to them—whether it’s shoveling snow or whatever needs to be done.”
Another way to help is the local Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Committee (which recently expanded to include Mendota Heights, Mendota, and Lilydale). This is an organized effort to support our local National Guard unit and veterans with meals, activities, resources, networking, and more.
“I cannot say enough good things about them and enough praise for what they do,” Sabatke says. “When people ask how can I help and give back to the everyday soldier, your Beyond the Yellow Ribbon organization is a great way to do that. It can make a world of difference.”
“When I came home from my last deployment in 2012, I was honestly blown away,” Sabatke says. The Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Committee coordinated a welcome home event that included fire trucks draped in American flags and families ready to meet the soldiers when their busses pulled up. “A lot of that was provided by the local West St. Paul community, and that day will stick with me for my entire life.”
Hiring Soliders and Veterans
While soldiers have job security through training and deployment, it’s important for the community to be aware of their unique situation.
“That’s why it’s nice to have such a strong Yellow Ribbon organization,” Sabatke says. “It not only provides support to the soldiers, but it creates awareness in the business community.”
Letting local businesses know about employees they can hire is important, but it also helps to make them aware of the training and deployment requirements—as well as the caliber of employee they can hire.
“When you see someone who is serving in the National Guard or has served, make sure [an employer] understands what that person can provide to your organization,” Sabatke says. “Hiring these soldiers—they will come with a lot of wonderful qualities that I can promise you will make a difference in any organization.”
One of the reasons for the increased demand and strain on local National Guard units is because of our state of ongoing war. The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001 and Iraq since 2003. Escalated tensions with Iran earlier this year made people nervous and raised questions about this ongoing state of war.
That’s not something that dissuades the National Guard.
“We stand ready regardless of what’s going on in the world,” Sabatke says. “Everybody elected to serve. It typically runs deep—you want to give back, not only to your community, but your country.”
Future of the Armory
One open question is the future of the Nation Guard Armory in West St. Paul. The National Guard and the City of West St. Paul requested money from the state in 2016 to replace the 60-year-old building, but nothing came through.
“Having a unit located in West St. Paul is critical because there are so many individuals looking to serve our country and it’s nice to have a unit that’s based out of their hometown and backyard,” Sabatke says.
Proposals have been submitted that could impact the West St. Paul unit, according to Col. Sol Sukut, the Minnesota National Guard’s construction and facilities management officer. “However none of these proposals , even if selected, would have any effect on the West Saint Paul unit for at least another seven years,” Sukut says.
So despite changing needs and ongoing efforts, it looks like West St. Paul will retain the armory for at least the immediate future.
“There’s always going to be a need to have a unit in this area,” says Sabatke.
Deployment in Pandemic
Of course the current COVID-19 pandemic makes deployment more complicated, but the soldiers have gone through screening and increased training in things like social distancing and mask wearing.
“The health and well-being of each of our soldiers and their families is very important,” said Lt. Col. Rankin in another press release. “Every mitigation measure that is feasible will be applied to ensure the safety of our soldiers while they complete the tasks required for this mobilization.”
Support the National Guard
Before COVID-19, the Northern Dakota County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Committee had planned an event at Sibley High School to celebrate A Company and send them off. But the pandemic scrapped those plans.
Instead there will be a private departure ceremony at Camp Ripley on June 19.
If any family members need assistance during the deployment or anyone in the community wants to support our troops, contact the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Committee.
April 22, 2021 Update: Returning Home
West St. Paul’s unit of the National Guard will be returning home in the coming weeks after a successful mission providing security in the region of Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya.
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