‘We're both fighting battles’ — Tables turned as deployed soldiers worry about COVID-19 at home

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Air Force

A Phoenix Raven, assigned to the 779th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, stands guard while a C-130 Hercules unloads cargo at Al Taqaddum, Iraq, Nov. 23, 2019.

Dez Reding awoke early on Jan. 8 for her 6 a.m. shift as a clinical scientist for a laboratory at a Minnesota hospital system. On her phone was a two-word text from her husband, Sgt. Andrew Reding, who is in the Middle East on a yearlong deployment with the Minnesota National Guard: "I'm safe."

A hard, sinking feeling hit her gut. Reding had gone to bed early, so she didn't know that hours before Iran had launched rockets at two bases with U.S. troops in Iraq. She scoured the news for details. And while the outcome could have been worse — no U.S. soldiers died, though more than 100 had mild traumatic brain injuries — she was overcome with powerlessness. Anything that happened to her husband, she realized, was out of her control.

Over the past month, the tables have turned. Andrew has been worried for Dez as the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy, brought society to a standstill and killed more than 20,600. Tensions have increased in Dez's lab where she runs tests on various specimens, including on suspected COVID-19 cases. The nationwide personal protective equipment shortage has colleagues on edge.

Suddenly, instead of families back home worrying for service members in a war zone, the opposite is true.

"We're both fighting battles," Dez said. "We're asking ourselves the exact same questions every day: 'How do we keep ourselves safe, and how do we keep the people around us safe?' We're both on the front lines in that way."

The new normal

Dez Reding

Dez Reding moved in with her in-laws while her husband is deployed in with the Minnesota National Guard.

For the nearly 700 Minnesota National Guard soldiers on a yearlong deployment in the Middle East with the 34th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade, the past month has been a disorienting experience.

From afar they watch life back home turn into a slow-moving nightmare, a new normal they can't fully grasp from their posts in the desert.

As the pandemic has disrupted American life over the past month, the two dozen chaplains in the Minnesota National Guard brainstormed how to support soldiers' families in this unprecedented time. Instead of typical concerns of a deployment — Is my loved one safe? What do I say to an inconsolable child missing Mom or Dad? — the equation has changed. More uncertainty has been piled onto an already uncertain year.

In March, the secretary of defense issued a 60-day stop movement order for all uniformed and civilian personnel stationed overseas to help halt the spread of COVID-19. That order, which would end May 11, would not affect the dates of this deployment, which is due to end in early fall, but families still worried the deployment could be extended. Last week, the Air Force chief of staff said the military may consider preventing troops from moving to new orders or coming home from overseas until as late as August.

"There's a consistent apprehension about the future," said Lt. Col. Buddy Winn, the state chaplain for the Minnesota National Guard. "A month ago we could look at the calendar and know exactly what we were doing the next 30, 60, 90 days. Now that's all in question. Soldiers want to have more facts, more hard information, but it's not available for them."

Winn is posting ministerial videos on Facebook and Instagram, speaking to families' faith in this uncertain time.

"Mike Tyson said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face," Winn said in one of his coronavirus videos. "If the war on COVID has put your life plan on the canvas, you can get on your feet. Reach out to a trusted mentor for an honest conversation about your concerns, and knock out fear and uncertainty."

Holding up their ends

Spc. Benjamin Rudolf, a UH-60 Helicopter Repairer with 2-147th Assault Helicopter Battalion, inspects a tail rotor blade before it is installed onto a UH-60 Black Hawk, March 4, 2020.

Spc. Benjamin Rudolf, a UH-60 Helicopter Repairer with 2-147th Assault Helicopter Battalion, inspects a tail rotor blade before it is installed onto a UH-60 Black Hawk, March 4, 2020.

On a recent afternoon, outside a coffee shop on a military base in the Middle East, a public affairs officer passed her cellphone to Sgt. Reding, and then stepped far away as he spoke. The U.S. military is practicing social distancing, too.

Reding is a paralegal for the Army's Judge Advocate General Corps. During the deployment, Andrew and Dez, his wife of eight years, FaceTime daily, usually evenings in the Middle East and lunchtime in Minnesota. They talk about the blog Dez is starting, a millennial guide to homesteading: gardening, canning, raising chickens.

He's worried about his parents' health during the pandemic, but he's glad Dez took their dog and cat and is living with his parents in Grey Cloud Island, south of St. Paul, during the deployment.

"It feels very strange, almost like they're going through something I can't understand," Andrew said. "In the same way people back home have a hard time understanding what it's like over here. So in that strange way, we're sort of understanding one another."

Standing near him at the military base was Sgt. Ashley Venberg. As a civilian, the 32-year-old works in the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Minnesota. On this deployment, she is an aviation operations noncommissioned officer in charge of American forces in the Middle East. She deployed once before, to Iraq a decade ago, and she knows wars can have lasting effects on veterans.

Now, though, she's more concerned about the lasting effect the pandemic will have on everyday life on the home front. It didn't hit her how serious the situation was until she read that Gov. Tim Walz had announced the closure of restaurants, bars and other businesses. She's still looking forward to a Jucy Lucy with her boyfriend at the Nook in St. Paul when she returns, but she worries how everyday American life may be permanently changed.

"He tells me he'll let me know when to worry, and I haven't heard that yet," Venberg said. "We joke that he's holding up that end of the world, and I'm holding up this end of the world."

Her boyfriend is Giovanni Paulo, a 28-year-old surgical technician. They met on a ski trip last winter. Their courtship had a strange cadence to it, since Venberg knew she was about to deploy, but they dove into a relationship anyway.

Their past few months have gone much like the Redings'. In January, as Iran tensions escalated, Paulo was constantly anxious. During some surgeries, he'd give his cellphone to a nurse to tell him if he got a text from his mother or girlfriend.

Now, it's Venberg who is on edge about Paulo and her parents. For Venberg and other deployed soldiers, this has been one of the most jarring parts of the deployment. Soldiers expect people back home to be on edge about them living in a war zone, but soldiers don't go to war expecting to be even more on edge about everyday life in the United States.

When people were panic-buying at grocery stores a few weeks ago, Venberg called her boyfriend: "Do you have enough food?"

There wasn't much he could do to calm her nerves. It was as if the powerlessness was transferred from the home front to the war zone. The uncertainty brought anxiety.

So Paulo kept her on the phone as he did an inventory of his well-stocked refrigerator and pantry, just to show that he was as prepared as he could possibly be.

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