Wade Rupp and Lindsey Graber are among those from the 153rd Engineer Battalion readjusting to life as an everyday civilian
Here’s what Wade Rupp did on Saturday night, Sept. 30:
He grilled a steak with his family and swapped stories about all that had happened in their lives the past 10 ½ months, during which time Wade, 43, and his oldest son, Tanner, had been on active duty in the Middle East and away from the other half of the home unit: matriarch Karla and younger brother Kade.
Here’s what Lindsey Graber did on Saturday night:
Not much. She just chilled.
“It was just me and my friends,” says the 29-year-old. “Low key.”
Both describe their first night back home — and last week’s return to the United States from their tour of duty in Kuwait, Iraq and Syria — as “surreal.”
“It’s weird; It’s really weird,” says Graber. “You get into a routine. It was weird going from Kuwait to Texas, and now just being home, being able to do whatever you want. It’s just weird.”
“I don’t have to put on shoes or shower shoes,” says Rupp. “You can walk around the house with your bare feet or socks, whatever you want …
“You don’t have to walk outside if you have to go to the bathroom, or to take a shower,” adds Lindsey.
“And the smell of the fresh air,” Wade says.
“And it’s cold here,” Lindsey chimes in.
All of these reactions and more came pouring out as these two members of the 153rd Engineer Battalion of the South Dakota National Guard reflected on their time overseas and recent return to the homeland. The unit was welcomed home at two ceremonies during the day on Saturday, the first in Huron and the second in Parkston.
A “welcome home” celebration is being planned locally at the Freeman Community Center on Sunday, Nov. 12, beginning at 3 p.m.
The Rupps and Graber were part of the 80-member 153rd and, more specifically, a distribution platoon within the company tasked with providing support to the larger cause: Operation Spartan Shield in Kuwait and Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria. That included providing fuel for transportation, inventorying building materials for construction projects on various bases across the region and moving people around.
“Our job was more behind the scenes,” said Rupp, who is in his 24th year with the South Dakota National Guard.
“We were support,” says Graber, whose return home marked the conclusion of her first tour, “like putting fuel in the helicopters.”
Graber and Rupp said they were notified in April 2016 that the 153rd was being activated, and they left Huron for Fort Bliss, Texas in November for pre-mobilization training. In addition to the Rupps and Graber, Menno’s Lee Heckenlaible, Wade Hofer and John Neth are local members of the company.
The 153rd left Texas for Germany just after Christmas last year, on Dec. 30, and ultimately ended up in Kuwait.
“From when we were first told to when we actually got to Kuwait, (our mission) changed constantly,” said Rupp, who also did a tour with the South Dakota National Guard in 2004-05. “We had a general idea of what we were going to do, but it wasn’t until we got there that we knew exactly what our mission was going to be. And, even then, it changed.”
This was not a 9-to-5 job, but it wasn’t around the clock, either. When an order would come down from battalion headquarters to the command team and then make its way to the platoon level, there was usually plenty of time to fulfill that order.
“We usually had some time for reaction,” Rupp said. “The shortest would be a couple of days, but usually a week or sometimes even longer, depending on what it was.”
That occasionally means some short nights, but generally Graber, Rupp and others got some solid shuteye.
Six to eight hours a night?
“Sure, if you go to bed right away,” says Graber. “I mean, if you don’t, that’s on you.”
Graber and Rupp’s unit never got close to any combat and neither said they never felt in danger, nor do they know of any fellow unit members who were.
“All of our people were in safe locations,” said Graber. “We were never really in the fight, per se.”
And while Lindsey interacted some with the civilians in Kuwait and Iraq, most of their time was spent on and around the base working and — yes — relaxing.
Except for a bit of time toward the end, when they were moved to tents to make room for new military personnel coming in, Graber and the Rupps lived in hard buildings with good accommodations. And even when they transitioned to tents, they were big, with wood floors, air conditioning, “and right next to the port-a-pottys,” says Graber.
There was good food to eat. Graber said she ate a lot of chicken and mozzarella sticks; there was a chow house nearby, and unit members could choose from a variety of familiar restaurants right there on the base: Burger King, Taco Bell, Subway, Starbucks, Green Bean Coffee and Great Steak — primarily a sandwich shop.
“You couldn’t get a real steak there,” Graber said.
“You couldn’t get a real steak anywhere,” Rupp added.
There was volleyball early on in the tour — when it wasn’t so hot — and Saturday night “family bingo” enjoyed by members of the unit. They had access to laundry and could visit with family members back home daily if they wanted, or had time.
The preferred means of communication was through WhatsApp and Facebook.
But the 10 ½ months in the Middle East wasn’t without its challenges.
Time away from loved ones was first and foremost.
“The idea of leaving family behind is always tough,” Rupp said. “The last time my kids were a lot younger and this time Tanner went with, so half the family is there, but it’s still tough to leave your family, no matter how long it is and no matter where you’re going.
“This time it was maybe a little, I don’t want to say easier, but I knew that technology was in our favor this time,” he continued. “Last time if I got to call home once every couple weeks I was lucky. This time, realistically, we could talk every day if time allowed.”
Communicating with family meant navigating the time difference; the Middle East is eight hours ahead.
“That got a little hard,” Rupp said.
Dealing with the environmental conditions was also a challenge.
“Sand was nonstop — everywhere,” says Lindsey.
And it was hot. All summer. For months. At its hottest, they said, it was 128 degrees.
“There is no shade; the sun comes down and it hits you hard,” says Graber.
“So you drink a lot of water and get inside whenever you can,” adds Rupp.
There is “an idea” of when you’re coming home and a “for sure” when you’re coming home, and Rupp and Graber both say those are two very different things. The 153rd’s tour was to be a year, but its members had “an idea” that they would be coming home early about a month before they left.
The “for sure” day came a couple of weeks later.
The “for sure” time — at 3 a.m. — came a couple of days out.
“I think,” says Graber. “I don’t know for sure; the end was kind of a blur.”
Word that their tour would be coming to an end was met with relief.
“It was surreal,” Graber said. “That’s the point you’re waiting for the whole time. And it finally gets here and it’s exciting.”
Said Rupp: “You would watch buses leave and you’d think, ‘We can’t wait for it to be us, for it to be our day, and we finally got there.”
The 153rd Engineer Battalion returned to Texas from Kuwait on Sept. 18 and remained there for the de-activation process through the end of the month. Its unit members flew into Huron last Saturday for the ceremony there and then drove privately with their families to Parkston for a second “welcome home.”
Both Rupp and Graber say they didn’t cry when being united with members of their family, and Graber said it didn’t feel real.
“It was almost like, ‘Here’s your family — just kidding,” she said. “We’re taking you back.’ But I didn’t cry. (My mom) almost got me to, but I never did. I held strong. I was just happy.”
Rupp and Graber will settle back into civilian life here in the community, which is an ongoing process. Graber doesn’t expect she will return to her job with the United States Postal Service until sometime in December. Rupp, meanwhile, will settle back into his role as a sergeant working out of the National Guard office located at the Parkston school. His work is to oversee training and educational opportunities for members of the Guard.
He’s been involved with the South Dakota National Guard for 24 years and is 2 ½ years away from being able to retire on the full-time side.
Graber is in her 11th year and is less than one year away from being eligible to leave the National Guard.
Neither know if they will call it quits when their time comes.
“It’s hard coming off a deployment and making that decision,” says Graber. “I’ll know in a few months.”
“After going through this, everybody has the, ‘You know, it’s time to take a break’ mentality,” said Rupp. “But after we get back into the swing of things it might be different. It will be a tough decision to make.”
This much they know: They do what they do because it’s service to others.
“At the beginning, a lot of people join for the benefits, but that’s not me,” said Graber. “That wasn’t ever me.”
“It’s selfless service,” says Rupp. “It’s along the same lines of being a firefighter. A lot of people think I’m crazy for doing that, too; why would you want to run into a burning building? But that’s selfless service. That’s why we do it.”