Two Milaca families celebrate end of deployment
Two Milaca men, Spc. Donald Utz Jr. and Spc. Jared Weidner, returned home to their families Saturday as the Minnesota National Guard 682nd Engineer Battalion Unit rolled up to the Willmar High School in passenger buses eager to “be dismissed” from an 11-month deployment to the Middle East.
They deployed with a group of about 160 other soldiers as part of the Operation Spartan Shield. Hundreds gathered excitedly for their return, and many families held “welcome home” banners. Dozens of Patriot Guard members lined up on either side of the bus lane holding flags, and all eyes watched the hill for a glimpse of the first bus.
The soldiers on the mission came from a total of 99 communities across Minnesota, and coincidentally, the two families from Milaca ended up right next to each other on the curb. The Utz family waited to see Donald return from his second tour of duty in the Middle East, and the Weidner family waited to see Jared after his first tour.
The crowd began to cheer as the buses came down the hill and everyone strained to glimpse into the bus windows. The soldiers disembarked quickly and were required to get into formation for a short ceremony before being dismissed.
Leah Weidner spotted her husband in the formation and ran to him for a long awaited hug and kiss. The two were married out of state a few days before he left for the deployment, and they plan to have a local ceremony later this year.
Kayla Utz found Donald in the crowd quickly and the two shared a tight embrace and kiss as his other family members – mom, sister, brother, uncle, aunt – lined up to greet him, too.
Donald said he was looking forward to some peace and quiet and was eager to leave the crowd and get on the way home. Jared said he’d already told his family – including mom, dad, grandma and two brothers – he couldn’t wait to eat at Hobnetti’s Pizza in Milaca.
The men had returned to the United States about two weeks before and stayed in El Paso, Texas, before heading home. They and their battalion were part of the Task Force Wild in Kuwait. The mission involved managing engineer sustainment operation throughout the Middle East, including road and building infrastructure and maintenance for coalition forces.
The Battalion deployed in the first week of October. They went to Camp Ripley for training before eventually traveling to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, where they said they were stationed throughout the deployment.
Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Keith Ferdon said in a news release: “The soldiers of Task Force Wild excelled in their mission and were recognized across the theater for their hard work and dedication. I couldn’t be prouder of how our soldiers represented the state of Minnesota.”
He said the unit provided horizontal and vertical engineer construction in support of coalition forces in the region. The soldiers helped plan and execute some 285 construction projects valued at $20.2 million and located in seven countries: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. The news release states that the unit’s work was responsible for the distribution support and maintenance of equipment that increased the battalion’s operational readiness from 59 percent to 91 percent.