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Nygaard returns from year in Iraq

The Nygaard family, left to right, are Kevin, Alex, Jaci and Char. The family was reunited last week at the Inver Grove Heights armory when Kevin returned home from a year-long tour in Iraq.

After almost a year in Iraq, Lt. Col. Kevin Nygaard didn't hesitate for a second when asked how it felt to be reunited with his family.

"Pure joy," Nygaard said.

The Hastings resident has been in the military for 30 years and the Minnesota National Guard for about the past 24 years. He arrived home to a warm welcome from family members last Tuesday at the Inver Grove Heights armory with other soldiers from the 34th Infantry Division.

"There were tears in my eyes and I was very happy to see him," Kevin's wife, Char Nygaard said.

The couple's children, 15-year-old Alex, and Jaci, 21, had a welcome home sign printed up with Nygaard's name on it and displayed it proudly as the soldiers filed into the large gymnasium.

When the group was officially dismissed, the entire Nygaard family was a blur of hugs and kisses for several minutes.

Throughout his long career in the guard, Nygaard has been working on communications equipment. It's gone from radios and analog technology, to satellites and digital.

"I've see four generations of communications equipment," he said.

His specialty is in networking and systems administration, or "sys admin," as he calls it. He traveled to Ft. Gordon, Ga., in July 2008 and spent seven and a half months there training and getting updated on the most current technology. After that, he came home for two weeks, and left in March 2009 for Basra, Iraq.

Nygaard was stationed at the Basra Air Station, a site that's about a mile by a half-mile piece of land at the airport in Basra. He said most people walked everywhere, but he was lucky enough to have a bicycle.

The base was surrounded by "T-walls," named as such because of their shape. The 12-foot high concrete "T-walls," protected the base from enemy fire. Still, there was the occasional rocket or mortar attack on the base. He said sirens would go off when an attack was occurring, or he'd hear someone yell, "Incoming!"

"Whenever you hear it, you just hit the dirt," he said.

Nygaard's average day in Iraq would usually begin around 7 a.m., when he would wake up inside of his "CHU," or compartmentalized housing unit, which is basically a trailer he shared with a roommate.

The 34th Infantry Division's job was essentially to control the southern third of Iraq. With Nygaard's concentration in communications, he was in charge of a group of people who monitored and maintained the equipment that kept all lines of communication open in the region.

By 7:30 a.m., he'd be getting his first brief of the day from the overnight crew. They'd report outages and let him know how the repairs to fix those outages were going. The rest of his day was spent following up on any issues and doing whatever he could to keep more than 15,000 soldiers in communication with each other.

"We were so busy that time flew by," he said.

Nygaard spent a couple hours a day in the gym, and lost 28 pounds while he was there. He'd work through the evening after going to the gym, and usually go to bed around 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. The days were long, but Nygaard said there wasn't much else to do besides work, so that's what he did.

Every Saturday night, he'd leave his subordinates in charge and gather with other officers to play cribbage.

"That was kind of our stress reliever," he said.

Another stress reliever was mail from back home. Char, Nygaard's wife, devised a way to bake things like banana bread and apple cake into canning jars and cap them right out of the oven so when Nygaard opened them a week or 10 days later, they'd still be moist. For his birthday, Char sent Nygaard his favorite, carrot cake, with the cream cheese frosting in a separate container.

Char has been involved in the local Family Readiness Group for about five years. The group provides a network for families of deployed soldiers while they're gone and when they come home. Being from large families (Char has five siblings and Nygaard has six), Char didn't need to take advantage of any of the group's services while Nygaard was gone, enlisting the help of family members instead.

Still, it was tough getting along without him, Char said. Nygaard is usually the one who helps Alex with his homework, but Char talked to Alex's teachers before Nygaard deployed and worked with Alex and the teachers to make sure he got along OK in school during the deployment.

Between spending time with friends, and being on the football and wrestling teams at Hastings High School, Alex and Char, who attended all the sporting events, were kept pretty busy.

Jaci is a student at Dakota County Technical College, and her school work kept her busy for the most part, too.

Since he's been home, Nygaard said it's been nice sleeping in his own bed instead of the small bed he had in Basra. He also enjoyed taking a long, hot, shower as opposed to the field showers he took in Iraq where he'd get wet, turn off the water, soap up, and then rinse off. Water was a precious commodity in Iraq and long showers were off limits.