Clad in desert camouflage, Capt. Mike Pazdernik said he sees heroes daily in the combat zone of Iraq and again in a small room in Brainerd.
Pazdernik, company commander with 152 Minnesota Army National Guard soldiers in Company A, 1st Battalion, 194th Armor, spoke to family members of deployed soldiers Monday night at the Brainerd Armory.
"I'm surrounded by heroes every day and those heroes are your soldiers," Pazdernik told family members gathered at the Family Readiness Group meeting Monday.
Pazdernik, Little Falls, is home on leave from Iraq. He got off a plane in Dallas to applause and waving flags and considered the public support fortunate when compared to the way returning soldiers were treated in his father's generation. He said simply seeing the support-the-troop ribbons on cars helped.
And Pazdernik told the family members he also was surrounded by heroes right there in the room at the armory.
"Over there we have each other to rely on," he said, adding family members may find themselves alone or alone with their children. He complimented the Family Readiness Group and said the Brainerd lakes area has provided tremendous community support.
"Thank you for supporting your soldier and being patient and enduring this challenge with them," Pazdernik said.
While soldiers may feel hopeless now in the heat and endlessly same days, Pazdernik said morale is expected to improve in September when the deployment end is in sight and temperatures begin to cool down. Area soldiers deployed in Iraq could be home for Christmas. The soldiers hope to leave Iraq in early December then go to Kuwait and then to Fort Dix in New Jersey before coming home. Once home they should have 15 months of stability, based on their months of deployed service, before they could be deployed again.
Pazdernik provided a glimpse of daily life for area soldiers stationed in the Sunni Triangle of Iraq in the company's remote forward operating base.
"They go and they go and they go," he said. "All of your soldiers work 16 hours a day."
They sleep for four hours and are back on duty. They are in a harsh climate with temperatures in excess of 130 degrees with frequent sandstorms and invasive dust. They face sporadic power outages and food that may not be something to write home about in a good way. Even with air conditioners working in the tents, they try to sleep in 95-degree heat. Soldiers may stand in the heat for 12 hours straight while on guard duty.
Pazdernik said he can be pretty hard on the soldiers but he preferred them to hate him later during their long lives then like him now and have a short one.
"It can be a very unforgiving place," he said of Iraq.
The few injuries after more than 600 combat patrols covering tens of thousands of miles has not been due to dumb luck, Pazdernik said.
"They are head and shoulders above any other unit over there," he said. "The way they do their jobs has already saved their lives and other people's lives."
He said soldiers have been there long enough to recognize when things are out of place even in the debris-strewn devastation in Iraq. Just going out in a vehicle in Iraq is mentally tasking as they watch every area for a possible threat from rooftops, buildings, people, roadsides.
They have found more improvised explosive devises than they've been hit with because they are that vigilant and observant. "It is not just luck," he said. Equipment helps. Pazdernik cited an occasion when their armored Humvee was destroyed but the crew walked away.
For the homefront, Pazdernik suggested sending items to be given to the Iraqi people, such as school supplies, shoes especially for children, soccer balls, toys.
He said the company is now at a point where they wait to respond to incidents to let the Iraqi police and military take care of it. Pazdernik said they have seen more stability in the area, power poles with cables, small stores open and improvements in infrastructure. With better electricity and water things will continue to improve with the Iraqi people, but Pazdernik said democracy will take time to grow there.
At the end of the night, Pazdernik and his wife, Stephanie, handed out yellow roses to the soldiers' family members saying he was standing in for their loved one.
"You have to know they love you -- they do -- and they miss you," he said.
Tressie Schneider hugged her 4-month-old daughter, Faith, while listening to Pazdernik share experiences of life in Iraq. Her husband Spc. Joshua Schneider is serving with 152 Minnesota Army National Guard soldiers in Company A, 1st Battalion, 194th Armor. She said he appreciated hearing from Pazdernik.
"It's the closest thing to my husband that I can get," she said, looking at the captain as he shared a word about each soldier with family members. "And I know he's in good hands."
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.
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