March 26, 2010 - As members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's Embedded Training Team arrived in La Crosse Friday (March 26) following a deployment to Afghanistan, some family members let their T-shirts do the talking.
"Phone Cards: $400," the T-shirt front read. "Care Packages: $1,000. New Furnace: $5,000. Getting our Soldier back home ... PRICELESS!"
The back of those T-shirts read "Team Miller" in honor of Lt. Col. Russell Miller, one of 16 Wisconsin Guard Soldiers who mobilized a year ago to mentor Afghan officials in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Col. Tim Lawson, ETT commander, thanked the families and friends gathered at the La Crosse Municipal Airport for their support of the unit he refers to as "Iron Badgers" over the past year.
"We were in a war zone, but I am sure that most of the battles were being fought over here by you," he said.
Members of the Miller family members acknowledged the deployment was stressful.
"Our family is so close and this made us stronger," said daughter Jen Miller. "We got through it together."
"He's home just in time for sports," added son Ryan Miller.
The Miller family explained that they make themed T-shirts for various celebrations, and spent months on this version.
Lawson shared how the ETT had trained to support the Coalition Task Force Phoenix by mentoring the Afghan National Police in the western province of Herat, which it did through the presidential elections last August. Lt. Col. Brad Anderson and Master Sgt. Matthew Kronschnabel were sent north almost immediately after the ETT arrived in country, which would prove to pay dividends later.
Following the elections, the scope of the ETT's mission changed, and Lawson said he ultimately decided that "it was better to have a good job and separate some members than to have a bad job and stay together."
Miller and Sgt. 1st Class Noel Severson remained in Herat to fill critical positions with the Regional Support Team West, while Lt. Col. Richard Borkowski and Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Hass headed to Kabul. The remainder of the team rejoined Anderson and Kronschnabel in the Regional Support Team North, a region administered by German forces. Lawson called it "the ultimate test in versatility."
"I know that most of us ended up doing something different than what we wanted or ever thought that we would be doing," he said. "Most of you became [forward operating base] builders, building contractors, site managers, equipment distribution centers and mentors to the Afghan Police and Army personnel."
Additional challenges came with the territory - rampant corruption among Afghan officials, and a dangerous enemy waging a determined insurgency campaign. Lawson said there were some close calls, and that fortune and timing favored his team.
"You are all warriors," he said. "I am extremely proud of how you all handled the mission changes and continued to give everything that you had to a country that is in great need. Take some solace in the fact that what you have done today will change tomorrow."
The members of the ETT spent about an hour with loved ones before heading by bus to Fort McCoy to begin the demobilization process. Jen Miller already had plans for when her father was home for good.
"We have a whole year of stories to catch up on," she said.
The ETT mobilized in March 2009, and after several weeks of training at Fort Riley, Kan. deployed to Afghanistan. This was the Wisconsin Army National Guard's fourth such embedded training team to be sent to Afghanistan.