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Honoring the commitment: Bemidji man to deploy soon for yearlong stint in Middle East

TJ Melcher will put his job at the Minnesota Department of Transportation on hold and be away from his wife and children as he leaves soon for a yearlong deployment in the Middle East with the Minnesota National Guard. leave his family after being deployed for over a year next month. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — Despite several stints in the Minnesota National Guard, TJ Melcher has never been on deployment.

That will change. As a member of the 34th Combat Aviation Brigade out of St. Paul, the Bemidji man will leave next month for mobilization training in Texas before deploying to Kuwait in August.

“I got transferred (to that unit) with the intent to deploy,” he said. “A long time ago, ever since I commissioned, I wanted to deploy. It’s an important thing for me, to be able to do that. … It’s important for me to prove to myself and my country that I’m there to serve, to stand up, that I’m willing to go.”

But it won’t be easy. He will go overseas while his family, including his wife Mistie and their six children, remain here.

“It doesn’t feel like he’s leaving yet,” Mistie said. “We are doing our day-to-day life now and I do think about him leaving, and then I get teary-eyed and I go through my emotions, getting all sad about it and then I’m mad at him for volunteering, and then I’m OK with it, and then I’m like, oh my gosh, the kids are going to overthrow me while he’s gone. But daily it just doesn’t cross my mind daily yet that he’s leaving.”

Melcher is taking a leave from his position as public affairs coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Transportation for the duration of his deployment and Mistie, who had been working, has decided to be an at-home mom while she manages the kids, ranging from age 2 to 16, while he’s away.

“We have a very busy lifestyle,” she said. “It allows for two parents to be able to work and run kids but it definitely is not set up for one parent to run kids and work.”

With children in gymnastics, football, swimming, football and baseball, they said transporting them to and from practices and competitions — plus managing their school studies and basic needs — is a job by itself.

“You literally can spend four hours every evening running kids to and from practices,” Mistie said.

Melcher, though, said it was something they knew he wanted to do.

Right from high school

He initially joined the Guard out of high school, graduating on a Friday and reporting to basic training that Monday for two months. After a year in school, he went back and his first drill was actually the disbandment ceremony for their unit as it shut down. He went inactive.

In 2000, he re-enlisted in hopes of obtaining school benefits but it wasn’t possible. That occurred before 9/11 and he tore his ACL and eventually got out. Then, he gained a bunch of weight, he said, but worked it off and got got healthy again. In 2008, a friend suggested he consider the Guard again.

“At that moment, it just hit me, that’s really what I needed to do,” he said. “When I was in in ’95, I didn’t do anything, when I was in in 2000, I didn’t do anything. And, especially in today’s age, when people find out you served, they want to shake your hand and thank you. But for me, it was just silly because I hadn’t done a darned thing. I didn’t feel deserving of that.

“Part of re-enlisting was getting in and fulfilling that original commitment, and that commitment to myself.”

He acknowledges it will be hard, on himself and his family. Indeed, it already has been as he left earlier this year for additional training throughout April, then in May he was in another round of trainings at Camp Ripley. The official deployment ceremony was held last weekend in St. Paul, and he’s home now until he leaves the second week of June for 60 days of mobilization training at Fort Hood.

“We’re kind of going through this process, of having to say goodbye and then the motion of that separation, over and over again,” he said. “It’s good and bad.”

He’ll come home one more time for a four-day leave over the Fourth of July. After that, he’ll be gone until he returns next May.

“Nobody likes that part,” Mistie said quietly. “That’s the sad part of the story.”

More than 220 soldiers in the 34th CAB will go to Camp Buehring, Kuwait, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Melcher said the unit will be the headquarters element of an aviation task force to be comprised of soldiers from several states. Melcher himself is an intelligence officer and will working with his fellow soldiers to keep track of significant enemy acts — what they are doing, the trends, the terrain, the weather everything that is happening around them. Their assets include UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and Apache helicopters.

“We basically paint the picture of our operations folks so the commander can make the decisions on what we need do,” he said.

“He is going to be behind a safe wall at all times, nobody’s going to be blowing bombs at him, and if he picks up a gun, something has gone terribly wrong,” Mistie said, giving her husband a pointed look. “Or so I’ve been told anyway. This is how he keeps me sane.”

The couple, who have been together for four years and married for a year and a half, don’t have local family here but they do have friends, including Mistie’s best friend who is also staying home with her kids in the next year.

Melcher has tried to make things a little easier on Mistie, having arranged for a lawncare service to deal with the yard this summer and snowplow services for the winter.

But emergencies do come up. While he was gone for training this spring, the water heater went out. Mistie called Hill’s Plumbing and Heating, who has worked with them before, and the company, after initially discussing the potential for a payment plan, talked it over and decided to donate the heater and its installation to the family. The “bill” that came simply said, “Thank you for your service.”

“I was just hysterical,” Mistie said, about her reaction. “I was a blubbering mess.”

“You hate to sit and raise your hand and say, ‘I’m deploying and I need some attention,’ so you don’t do that,” Melcher said. “Things just come about in roundabout ways.”