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A Minnesota National Guardsman, wearing an armband to show his affiliation with the Air Force, checks out a motorist passing through the gate at Aviano Air Base in Italy. The part-time soldiers are spending the next six months on active duty in Europe, guarding gates at bases in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Turkey.

A Minnesota National Guardsman, wearing an armband to show his affiliation with the Air Force, checks out a motorist passing through the gate at Aviano Air Base in Italy. The part-time soldiers are spending the next six months on active duty in Europe, guarding gates at bases in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Turkey. (Kent Harris / S&S)

New countries. New languages. New duties.

You might get the picture that Task Force Minnesota has a lot of adjustments to make for its six-month mission in Europe.

“This is really foreign to us in several ways,” said Staff Sgt. Steven Wegleitner, a member of the 151st Field Artillery Regiment’s Battery F, which is assigned to Aviano Air Base in Italy.

The task force, composed mainly of elements of the Minnesota National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 125th Field Artillery Regiment, is now providing security at bases in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Turkey. As strange as it is for some of the guardsmen to be on active duty for more than half a year, many are performing duties at Air Force bases, adding another difference.

Well, maybe not that different.

Capt. Jim Helvig, who commands the battery at Aviano, spent a dozen years as a military policeman. Any differences between an MP and an Air Force security forces officer?

“Not a lot,” he says with a smile. “They’re fairly similar.”

But most of Helvig’s unit is a bit newer to the security business. Lt. Col. Bruce Jensen, the battalion commander, said his task force is full of quick learners, though.

“It’s a change of pace for us,” he said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Germany. “We have good soldiers. They’re really excited about being over here.”

And while providing security at gates is different from firing heavy artillery pieces, soldiers are soldiers, he said. The task force underwent specialized security training at Fort McCoy, Wis., before heading to Europe to replace a similar unit from Puerto Rico.

And they’ve been training ever since.

“As soon as we hit the ground, we were in training,” says Helvig.

About 220 soldiers from the task force are in England, guarding RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall, the Air Force’s largest bases in the U.K. The unit’s soldiers also are helping out at RAF Alconbury and RAF Croughton.

“I think we all felt lucky, that we drew a pretty good card,” said Sgt. Shawn Kor of Battery A, at the gates at RAF Lakenheath, home of the 48th Fighter Wing.

He said he had heard Bosnia and Kosovo were possible destinations for the 34th (Red Bull) Infantry Division. Various units of the division are assigned in the Balkans and Southwest Asia.

Staff Sgt. Travis Kuehl said the rumors had the unit going various places.

“We were always kind of under the impression that Korea was where we’d be sent,” he said. “Or Kosovo. That was the rumor.”

For Kuehl, 29, an electrician from Sioux Falls, S.D., the mission prevented him from leaving the guard, which he joined 12 years ago. His day of departure was Aug. 4, but the order came on July 5.

Providing security is all right, he said, but artillerymen like to fire the big guns.

“I’d rather be in the field,” he said. “[Security] is a nice change of pace, but it’d be nice to be doing what we’ve trained to do.”

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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