ST. CLOUD - Hugs are exchanged with proud family members and children nearby clutch American Flags. Some parents shed tears while others snap plenty of photos from their seats with their smart phones.

A deployment ceremony is nothing short of bittersweet.

Nearly 20 soldiers from the National Guard’s B Company, 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment based in St. Cloud, are deploying for a nine-month mission to Afghanistan.

For Sergeant Brandon Stafford of Sauk Rapids, this will be his second deployment after he served in Iraq.

"It's a lot going through your mind, it's kind of bittersweet: we're going to do the job that we've been training to do but on the other side it just sucks leaving family and friends."

Sergeant Derek Vollmer has been living in St. Cloud for two years now and says this will be his first deployment.

"I'm excited for it: I tell everybody you don't join the service and hope never to deploy, so I'm glad it's finally my time to go."

The soldiers here fly Chinook Cargo Helicopters, providing support for combat and combat service operations. The unit was previously deployed in 2006 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and in 2011 in support of Operation New Dawn.

They have significant experience flying at night using night vision goggles, so the unit took on the nickname "All Night Long".

"The comradery with the unit is amazing, everybody gets pretty close on the deployment. Luckily we get to leave and go be with our friends and our second family," Stafford says.

Leaving home is never easy, but the unit knows they have friends and family behind them every step of the way.

"Once my family found out that I wasn't going to quit trying to pursue it, they got aboard and they're very proud of me right now," Vollmer says.

After today, soldiers will travel to Fort Hood, Texas for pre-deployment training. They will arrive in Afghanistan in August and will return to Minnesota next spring.

The Soldiers come from 17 communities across Minnesota: Andover, Bemidji, Big Lake, Coon Rapids, East Bethel, Fort Ripley, Kasota, Little Falls, Luck, Oak Park, Princeton, Prior Lake, Sartell, Sauk Rapids, Shakopee, St. Cloud and St. Louis Park.


Dan DeBaun, WJON