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First Lt. Eric Lewanski, center, a Hastings resident, is a member of the Minnesota National Guard 34th Infantry Division and is currently stationed in Basra, Iraq.

Lewanski gets married, then leaves to serve in Iraq

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The Minnesota National Guard 34th Infantry Division recently assumed control of the 16,000-person multinational force in the southern third of Iraq. First Lt. Eric Lewanski, a Hastings resident, is a member of the 34th, or the "Red Bulls" as they're called, and is currently stationed in Basra, Iraq.

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He said going into the deployment, which is his first to Iraq, he knew some of the active duty soldiers were skeptical about whether the Red Bulls could command such a large force, being they're a National Guard infantry division made up of mostly "weekend warriors."

"We've definitely proven ourselves to be more than competent leaders," he said.

On the contrary to what the active duty soldiers may have thought before deployment of the 34th, Lewanski said the Red Bulls bring a certain amount of varied expertise to their roles in Iraq, because they all have full-time jobs at home separate from the military.

Lewanski is an underwriter for Travelers Insurance in St. Paul and said he's found himself using skills from that job in his work in Iraq.

Since arriving in May, Lewanski has been working primarily to set up communications equipment so troops in Iraq can remain in contact with each other. His time there has been full of 14-hour work days, and recently, seven-day work weeks.

He's currently transitioning into a more intelligence-focused role, where he'll be facilitating construction and rebuilding projects.

Though there's still active fighting going on in Iraq all the time, there are also a large number of construction projects aimed at either rebuilding or creating new infrastructure, such as power plants, sewer systems and water treatment plants.

Lewanski said electricity is a huge issue there, whether it's restoring it to areas where it's been knocked out, or bringing it to new areas. With average daily temperatures reaching 120 degrees, air conditioning is on the minds of soldiers and Iraqis alike.

"The local residents get irritated when there's no A/C," he said.

Many of those same local residents are helping in the rebuilding process, Lewanski said. There are still those in Iraq, however, who don't want to help America's efforts and who'd rather see projects, such as those Lewanski is working on, fail.

In his new intelligence-focused role, Lewanski will manage rebuilding projects from an intelligence perspective and help safeguard the projects and the people working on them.

Lewanski joined the National Guard while he was still in high school. He was in the ROTC program while at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. He was commissioned as an officer in May 2007, and made the rank of first lieutenant in November 2007.

'I do ... Bye!'

Lewanski and his wife, Katie, were planning to get married for a year before he knew he was going to be deployed to Iraq.

When he found out the date of his deployment, it was sooner than they'd originally planned to get married, but they moved up the wedding because of the deployment.

Lewanski had to be at training for several months while Katie planned most of the wedding without him.

"Bless my wife," Lewanski said.

Though she was short on time, Lewanski said Katie organized an amazing wedding with 300 guests. They were married Jan. 24, Lewanski deployed to Fort Lewis in Washington in February, and was in Iraq by early May. The couple never got to go on a honeymoon.

"I'm hoping for some leave soon," Lewanski said. "Preferably in winter."

Preferably in winter? That's not something you hear every day in Minnesota.

"When it's 120 (degrees) every day, that snow looks pretty good," he said.

Still, though they're thousands of miles apart, the couple is in contact quite often.

"Between e-mail and cell phones, I can talk (to Katie) pretty much anytime I want," Lewanski said.

He said day-to-day challenges back at home in Hastings, like a car breaking down, are the toughest to help deal with from Iraq.

Lewanski is a 2003 graduate of Hastings High School. His parents, James and Joy Lewanski, still live in Hastings.

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