A soldier’s story

Lynnhurst resident Tim Kennedy reflects on Guard duty

We the people have many roles during wartime. One of us gets up every morning before dawn, shovels his and his neighbor’s walk, runs a few miles, coordinates the grandchild-sitting schedule with his wife of 38 years, goes to his job as a software developer, and prepares for the next time he’ll send other sons, daughters, fathers and mothers into harm’s way.

Lynnhurst resident Brigadier General Tim Kennedy did that 20 times last year. Twenty times, he found himself at the center of a deployment ceremony, thanking the families of the Minnesota National Guard, all of whom know full well what could happen to their loved ones as they go off to Iraq or Afghanistan. Twenty times, he stood at a podium and said to dozens of formerly part-time soldiers, “It’s an honor to be here,” and talked about the “patriotism and ethic” and the “highly skilled and trained” men and women of the Guard. After which, more than a few times, people came up to him, pumped his hand, and said, “I just wanted to shake the hand of a [brigadier] general.”

Radical choices

Kennedy was a newlywed and a first-time father when he signed up for the Guard in 1970. One of 11 kids from a farm family in rural Wisconsin, he and his wife Sue were attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He was working towards his degree in elementary physical education, and the Vietnam War was raging. So was the Wisconsin campus.

“It was a very radical campus; I went through more tear gas going to class that semester than I did in basic training,” says Kennedy, sitting at a spotless dining-room table in his and Sue’s pristine North Woods-decorated home in South Minneapolis. “There were demonstrations in the street, and one of the tactics would be to have a gas mask and gloves on, and when [the police] lobbed tear gas at [protestors], somebody would pick it up and throw it into a building to get more people out in the streets.

“It was very tumultuous times, and so people made the choice: ‘I will serve, wait to see if I get drafted or I’ll ride to Canada,’ and that was never a consideration for me. I felt it was inevitable that I get drafted, and I wanted to have better control of my destiny, so I signed up for the Guard. It didn’t seem to make sense to leave it to chance. It was a question of ‘I’m going to serve; now how?’”

Kennedy served six years in the Wisconsin National Guard. He moved his family to Minneapolis, where they didn’t know a soul, but where the teaching jobs in the public schools were plentiful. He settled down, found a Guard unit, re-enlisted, and continued with the Guard drill regimen of one weekend a month and 15 days in the summer – all the while realizing that the Guard could be activated at any time for numerous reasons by the state or federal government.

Before he died last year, another general – William Westmoreland – famously said, “The military don’t start wars. Politicians start wars.” Kennedy says, “My personal belief is that one of the things that happened in Vietnam was that we didn’t separate the politics from the military service. And I think they really are two [different] things. Whether you agree or disagree with if we should be in Iraq or not, you can’t downplay the commitment and the sacrifice of somebody saying, ‘I know I have a 1-year-old, and I won’t see him for a year. But I believe that this country is worth fighting for and defending, and I’m willing to do that.’ And that should never beŠ”

He looks up at the ceiling of the family dining room, where he has had hundreds of meals with his own family, and searches for the word.

“Šdismissed. You can disagree with the Republicans or the Democrats or whatever, but it doesn’t change the seven [Guard] pillars: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage. I believe it takes all of those.”

The new business-as-usual

Last August, 2,600 members were sent to the Middle East – the largest overseas deployment of Minnesota National Guard soldiers since World War II. Suddenly, for Kennedy and other warriors without a war who had spent much of the past three decades fighting a so-called “cold war,” it was no longer business as usual. Just for one example, Kennedy, 57, has run every Twin Cities Marathon [since its inception in 1981]. But after finishing last year’s race, he – along with fellow marathoners Governor Tim Pawlenty and his wife Mary – boarded a helicopter for a deployment ceremony in front of 600 people in Hutchinson.

“Think about an 8-year-old who has to say, ‘I’m not gonna see my mom or dad for a year,’” the general-father-grandfather says, clutching briefly at the breast of his red corduroy shirt. “That’s hard. It’s tough to see crying kids. You put yourself in their place.”

Then there was the 45-year-old guy who took Kennedy aside and told him how excited he was to finally be a getting a chance to do what he’s been training for his whole life. And the mother of four who moved in with another family while her husband served in Afghanistan. And the amputees at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., who tell Kennedy they want to go back and serve. And Jason Timmerman, 24; David Day, 25; and Jesse Lhotka, 24, the three Minnesota Guard soldiers who were killed in Baghdad last February; and the 40 others who have been injured.

At the moment, 2,700 Minnesota Guard soldiers are training at Camp Shelby, Miss. Soon, they will relocate to Camp Shepherd, La., where a mock village is set up, replete with buildings and characters they will encounter in Iraq. Next month, there will be a three-week assessment of the troops to determine if they’re ready for the mission. If they pass the test, they will be deployed to Iraq in March, and Kennedy will be there to thank them and wish them well.

“I’m proud as heck to be part of the Minnesota National Guard,” says Kennedy. “Once you get over there, other than a patch on the shoulder, you really can’t tell which one you’re looking at-Guard, or Reserve, or active duty. I believe we have demonstrated our ability to serve side by side with the people who do it [full-time].

“You know, the human resources person for Schwan’s is out there, taking eight weeks out of his life to become a commissioned officer because he believes he can contribute more by doing that. I’m a better leader today than I was yesterday, but we’re just getting high-quality people who I look at and say, ‘I’m glad I don’t have to compete with them because I’m not sure I’d be as far as I am today.’ It’s an honor to make it this far. It just doesn’t happen to many.”

Jim Walsh is a Southwest resident and a writer for City Pages.