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Army Reserve: Local soldier reflects on deployment experiences

Maj. John Naastad of Bemidji, at right with his helmet between his feet, meets with local Muhktars in Fallujah, Iraq. He worked with these neighborhood leaders to elect representatives for each area to coordinate local needs. Submitted Photo

When Maj. John Naastad of Bemidji graduates in June from Ft. Leavenworth's Command and General Staff College in Kansas, he will be on track for a promotion to lieutenant colonel.

One of his graduation requirements is to conduct a media interview, so Naastad, a 23-year Army Reserve veteran, recounted his experiences during deployments in Bosnia (2000), Afghanistan (2003-2004) and Iraq (2004-2005 and 2008).

"In most cases, I deployed as a Civil Affairs officer that worked on construction projects, elections, and local government assessments," Naastad said. "We'll engage with the locals, work with local government, help organize reconstruction."

Naastad is a member of the 407 Civil Affairs Battalion based in Arden Hills.

He said he learns some of the language and customs of whatever country he works in, but there are so many dialects in each of the countries of his deployment that he has to work with translators, too. But being able to converse to some extent "lets the locals know you're making an effort," he said.

In Bosnia, Naastad worked with people who had fled their homes and were coming back to rebuild. Generally, he said, that meant leveling whatever was left of their homes and cleaning up the site before reconstruction could begin.

In Jalalabad, Afghanistan, he said he helped set up reconstruction teams.

And in Iraq, he said he worked on construction and elections, and developing small business loans.

"Just to get the economy going," he said. "Each area is so different in what it needs."

Naastad noted that the Army hesitates to make a big celebration with wide publicity about things like newly rebuilt schools or clinics opening because of fears that those practicing terrorism or sectarian violence might blow them up.

"What they're reporting doesn't match up with what we see on the ground," he said.

However, he said, in more recent times, there has been more efforts to let local governments in the countries know that progress is being made.

Naastad said Gen. Stanley McCrystal is aiming for more friendly engagement in Afghanistan.

In Naastad's deployments, he said the wars didn't have any front lines or rear lines and the combatants don't necessarily wear uniforms.

"Pretty much everywhere in Iraq is a war zone," he said.

Naastad's wife, Barbara Naastad is a Bemidji dental hygienist with two children, ages 8 and 11. He said they try to get in touch with each other every night.

"Often they're the ones who take the brunt of the deployment," Naastad said.

He said he could be deployed again after graduation, most likely to Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa.