Updated: October 29, 2021 06:07 PM
Created: October 29, 2021 05:37 PM
Soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard's 34th Infantry Division played a key role in the U.S. military’s final hours in Afghanistan this summer.
For the first time, we’re now hearing from the Guard’s battalion commander who led 425 soldiers from Minnesota on a mission at Kabul’s airport.
It was Aug. 12, 11:17 PM, when Lt. Colonel Jacob Helgestad said there was a knock on his door at Camp Buehring, Kuwait.
"Woke me up and said, ‘Sir, we have to be in Afghanistan in 24 hours,’" Helgestad recalled. “I went from a dead sleep to my mind racing 1,000 mph."
Around 1,100 soldiers of the Minnesota National Guard’s Task Force 1-194 first mobilized in March 2021.
Back in August, their mission took center stage as the world watched the U.S. military leave Afghanistan after 20 years.
The task force provided security at Hamid Karzai International Airport along with providing humanitarian assistance to U.S. citizens, special immigrant visa holders and their families boarding military flights, according to the military.
"Almost every nation in the planet was evacuating its people out, from Russia to all our NATO allies, you saw everybody, you kind of grasped the immensity of the entire situation," Helgestad said. "The world is literally staring at this one little runway in Afghanistan."
Guard members stood in guard towers along with Afghan forces to defend the airport after the Taliban’s takeover of the country.
“We cautioned ourselves and maintained ourselves that at anytime this could turn really bad, really quick," Helgestad said.
Along with providing security, the Guard was also tasked with keeping the airport running, which included making sure the runway was clean of debris for the planes taking off.
In one of the lighter moments, Helgestad said one of their soldiers had to “hotwire” the airport’s sweepers in order to get it running to keep the runway open.
But it was the faces of the Afghan children escaping their homeland that the Army veteran won’t forget.
"They'd be in the streets laughing... giving us high-fives as they would walk by," Helgestad said. "It’s a sense of relief that they actually will be evacuated with their families."
As the final planes left Afghanistan, the Minnesota guard members all returned without injury to the Kuwait base.
“As a Minnesotan, you can hold your head high, we were there in the end.. .and everything worked out and we did good… we did really good," Helgestad said.
Other members of the National Guard helped process evacuees who were flown out of Afghanistan to Kuwait.
In late January or early February, the soldiers are scheduled to return home to Minnesota.
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