Scenes from home

Smile for Soldiers program keeps military families connected during lengthy deployments

In hindsight, Matt Elton’s year in Iraq seems like a year in an alternate universe.

“When you are over there you kinda forget about back home, it just feels like you’ve been there forever. And then when you get home it feels like you never went there, except for the memories,” Elton said.

“It would be nice to have something [while deployed] to remind you that it’s only going to be another three, four months.”

Thor Anderson, owner of Saving Tape, a media conversion store located at 411 W. 36th St. in Kingfield, is trying to provide deployed soldiers with that “something” via his new Smiles for Soldiers program.

The program provides military families with discounts on home video-to-DVD conversions, a free copy of each DVD so families have one to send overseas, and free DVD mailers.

“Families are just broadsided by these long deployments,” Anderson said. “It’s one of the reasons I thought, ‘darn it, let’s get something going, because this isn’t going to end anytime soon.’”

Indeed, Anderson’s timing in rolling out Saving Tape’s Smiles for Soldiers program could not be more appropriate, as 2,400 troops from the Minnesota National Guard’s 34th Infantry Division will deploy to Iraq and Kuwait this spring and summer.

The deployment is the second largest of the 34th Infantry since World War II.

According to a Minnesota National Guard spokesperson, troops from the 34th Infantry will largely be responsible for providing convoy security as U.S. troops gradually pull out of Iraq.

Richfield-native Elton, 23, already knows a thing or two about convoy security. From April 2009 to April 2010, he served as a convoy security gunner for the Minnesota National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 151st Field Artillery unit.

He said he didn’t know that he would be a gunner until he arrived in Iraq. His training focused on information technology skills, and he thought he would work in IT during his deployment. But his IT training went out the window once he emerged as a top marksman in his basic training cohort.

“In the National Guard, when you deploy you don’t really do your job. I was supposed to do computers, and I deploy, and then I’m a gunner. You just go and do whatever they need you to do,” Elton said.

The mission of Elton’s unit was actually quite similar to what soldiers from the 34th Infantry will be doing beginning this spring and summer. Elton’s unit closed down two U.S. military bases, and the convoys for which he provided security mainly transported military equipment from Iraq to bases outside the county.

He said that his unit’s role in facilitating the drawdown of American forces in Iraq helped keep his battalion unified, as even those who didn’t support the overall U.S. mission in Iraq could support the cause of dismantling military bases.

Elton said his day-to-day routine while in Iraq consisted of a bizarre mix of extreme stress and prolonged periods of downtime. As a gunner, his job was to make sure that convoys steered clear of roadside bombs and didn’t fall victim to surprise attacks while navigating treacherous Iraqi roads, but convoys would sometimes be unable to move for days at a time.

“We would leave a base, get a mile out on the road, and then the convoy ahead of us would either [spot a bomb] or have one go off on them, and we would have to wait for [Explosive Ordinance Disposal] to come and clear it. We’d wait six, seven hours, miss our movement window, then have to do the same thing the next night,” he said, adding that on one occasion his convoy had to return to the base from which it was trying to depart for three consecutive nights.

Elton had limited interaction with his family back home while in Iraq. Because his unit was often on the move and Internet service was spotty, his communications with family mainly consisted of e-mail exchanges. E-mailing was better than nothing, but somewhat unsatisfying, Elton said.

“Having some home movies would be nice,” he said.

Elton was at Saving Tape because his stepmother Linda Spengler and father Lenny Smith had recently utilized the Smiles for Soldiers program to have a number of home videos converted to DVD (Elton carries the last name of his biological mother).

Linda’s son-in-law, Tony, is currently deployed in Afghanistan. The idea was to send the DVDs to Tony as a Christmas present. Thankfully, however, Tony unexpectedly received a leave just before the holidays and was able to actually spend Christmas with his family.

The converted tapes were “old 8-mm films from when myself and my brothers and sisters were kids. We lost my youngest brother this year and my sister as well, so [the DVD footage] was a well-received gift for everyone at Christmas time.”

Elton actually hopes to transfer to the 134th Infantry in order to deploy again sooner than later, mainly because doing so will help him work toward promotions and will provide him with access to better benefits once he leaves the armed forces. And given his ample experience as a convoy security gunner, it stands to reason that there is a good chance he will be leaving for Iraq once again this spring or summer.

Spengler said that if her son-in-law is indeed deployed for a second time, she’ll again utilize Smiles for Soldiers in hopes of making sure Matt and Tony never forget that they have a loving family eagerly anticipating their return home.

“There is nothing like having that home footage, because you can’t always be connected and there is a lot of downtime. You can’t spend all your time Skyping. Just to be able to have those memories, it made me realize that I want to convert a lot of home videos so I can share those things with [Matt and Tony].”

For more information about Smiles for Soldiers, go to savingtape.com.