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The men and women of the Ashland National Guard are bracing themselves for what could be a yearlong disruption of their lives as they prepare for deployment to the Middle East.
For some, like Spc. Jacob Dietz of Butternut, who is 19 and single, overseas duty is an adventure he looks forward to. For Staff Sgt. Anthony Weber, 30, it is time away from family but a duty of a professional soldier.
The 80 members of the Ashland detachment will be among the 150 citizen-soldiers of the 829th Engineer Company who will head to an undisclosed location in the Mideast this fall.
The company, headquartered in Spooner, will be part of the U.S. Army Central Command that has responsibilities over an area of 6.5 million square miles and 27 countries including the hottest of the world's political hot spots: Iran, Afghanistan and Syria. The company will be responsible for building everything from roads to large construction projects and safely demolishing damaged structures. The Ashland unit includes 75 men and 15 women, all of whom will be deployed.
Weber, a full time Guardsman who serves as the unit's training non-commissioned officer, said the unit found out last summer that they likely would be called to duty.
"You start those preparations at a personal level when you first find out," he said.
Weber notified every member of the unit so they could make plans on the same day he was given the information. But there's a big difference in being informed about a potential deployment a year in the future and having it become a reality.
That reality hit home when they loaded a rail car Monday with gear to be sent ahead to the port from which they will embark.
"That's when you know it's for real," Weber said.
Although Dietz is single, he said his girlfriend "was not excited about it" when he told here he was being deployed.
"But she's ready for it, I think," he said.
Dietz, who works in a paper mill, is more enthusiastic. He comes from a military family that understands and supports his commitment — something that makes the coming mission more palatable.
"It's going to be my first deployment, so it's something I want to get under my boots. I've always wanted to deploy; it's kind of why I enlisted, to go overseas and get a little experience in my job."
Exactly where they are going hasn't been disclosed by the Army, although Weber said they know it was somewhere in the Middle East. A news release issued by the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs said only that the 829th is being mobilized in support of an engineering battalion from Indiana.
"We think that we are going to be in more than one location," Weber said. "We may be in many different job sites all over the place."
Weber is among the Ashland troops who deployed in 2009 to Iraq, so he has an idea of the perils the unit might face.
"Anything can happen over there, but you could be in a traffic accident going to work. It is what it is. Terrorism is everywhere. That is why absolutely, you never let your guard down," he said.
The risks of hostile actions aimed at them are not the only problems facing Guard members. Many will walk away from well-paying jobs during the deployment, leaving families to make do on reduced military wages.
"We have members from all over the state, from all walks of life. Some people will definitely not make as much as they do on the civilian side, but I have heard from a handful that their employers will match what they would have made in their civilian job," Weber said.
The families left behind won't be along. Weber's wife, Ashley Weber, is a former member of the unit who served as a car pentry and masonry specialist. She brings that experience today to her role as a volunteer Family Readiness Group coordinator, an organization of family members, volunteers, and others associated with individual units.
"We help family members get the resources they need," Ashley Weber said. "For example, if they needed day care, I could help them find that."
That sort of support allows deployed troops to focus on their work and safety without worrying about problems back home.
"I think it's nice to have a familiar face you can go to, someone you know to get help from. If we don't have the answer, we have someone who can go to who will help out as well," Ashley Weber said.
Capt. Joseph Tadisch, the commanding officer of the 829th, said his soldiers, both from Ashland and Spooner, are ready for the deployment and have been training for it since they were notified last summer.
Tadisch said the unit's wealth of veteran noncommissioned officers who have been deployed previously will help him lead during the deployment.
"They are building the next generation of soldiers," he said. "They do a phenomenal job."
Tadisch said all his troops — some nervous, some seasoned — are prepared for whatever awaits.
"For the younger soldiers there is uncertainty because they have never been deployed, but the senior men who have done this before will guide them through the process," he said.
Ticks are small, but can take a big bite out of someone's health.
A case in point is Lyme disease, a tickborne illness that can lay a person low for months with a wide range of symptoms including fever, chills and fatigue to facial palsy to severe headaches and pain throughout the body.
And Bayfield County residents and visitors face a greater-than-average risk of contracting it.
"It's endemic here," said Sara Wartman, Bayfield County health officer, because the county is rural and wooded, providing the perfect habitat for ticks to thrive.
To raise awareness about Lyme disease and other tickborne illnesses striking Bayfield County, such as anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis, intern Hannah Hitchcock and environmental health registered sanitarian Anne-Mary Coy successfully spear-
headed an effort to get a $10,000 grant from the state Department of Health Services.
Part of the money will go toward educating the public about the importance of preventing tick bites and reporting any confirmed or suspected tick-related illnesses. The county's rate of Lyme disease is nearly three times the state average, Wartman said, but health officials believe its prevalence is actually much greater.
One of the tools the county is counting on to educate the public is a tick kit containing items such as insect-repellent wipes, tweezers to remove ticks and tick identification cards. Small plastic baggies also are included in the green, waterproof pouch to store ticks for later identification if a person becomes ill.
The county has given away about 700 of these kits this year, showing that the public is concerned about protecting themselves, Wartman said.
Next year's kit also will include information on how to report ticks. That's an important step toward helping the county keep track of emerging tick trends and make sure it soon knows if the lone star tick — a carrier of Rocky Mountain spotted fever — enters the area.
Besides taking preventive measures such as using tick repellents on skin and clothes, Wartman recommended that anyone who spends time outside immediately take a shower afterward to check themselves over for ticks and wash away the loose ones.
But sometimes taking careful measures fails to stop ticks and resulting illnesses, so the county wants to ensure that people know when to obtain medical assistance and that the area's health providers have the necessary knowledge to diagnose tickborne diseases.
One of the signature signs that a person has contracted a tickborne illness is a rash, but rashes don't appear in all cases. Only 70% to 80% of people who contract Lyme disease see its characteristic rash, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If other symptoms related to a possible infected tick bite arise, such as flulike fevers, sweating and chills, it's important seek medical attention, Wartman said.
With symptoms overlapping other betterknown illnesses, some providers who are new to the profession or the Northwoods may not have tickborne illnesses on their radar when a patient arrives in the examining or emergency room, Coy said.
The county hopes that correct diagnoses of tickborne illnesses will not only lead to better health outcomes for the patient, but improve efforts to more accurately report the prevalence of Lyme disease. Public health nurses will be working with providers so they learn to report cases — even suspected cases under certain circumstances — to the state.
For more information about Lyme disease or other tickborne illnesses, or how to get a tick kit, call the Bayfield County Health Department at 715-373-6109 or visit bayfieldcounty.org/Health.
Changing Climate, Changing Diseases
The Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center is hosting an event Thursday detailing how ticks are spreading northward and surviving longer because of climate change. This has changed how people contract tickborne illnesses and helped create new forms of illness that are more difficult to diagnose and cure.
The talk covers how an uncommon Lyme disease threatened the life of Spooner resident Jason Laumann and his long journey to recovery.
Dr. Andreas Kogelnik with the Tick Borne Illness Center of Excellence in Woodruff will describe his research and the challenges of treating and curing new tickborne diseases.
Becki Nelles, Bayfield County public health nurse, will describe regional trends in tick illnesses and follow-up care practices for sick patients.
For more information contact Ashland County Extension office at 715-682-7017.
Early Signs and Symptoms (3 to 30 days after tick bite)
• Fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes may occur in the absence of rash
• Erythema migrans (EM) rash
• Occurs in approximately 70 to 80 percent of infected persons
• Begins at the site of a tick bite after a delay of 3 to 30 days (average is about 7 days)
• Expands gradually over several days reaching up to 12 inches or more across
• May feel warm to the touch but is rarely itchy or painful
• Sometimes clears as it enlarges, resulting in a target or "bull's-eye" appearance
• May appear on any area of the body
Later Signs and Symptoms (days to months after tick bite)
• Severe headaches and neck stiffness
• Additional EM rashes on other areas of the body
• Facial palsy (loss of muscle tone or droop on one or both sides of the face)
• Arthritis with severe joint pain and swelling, particularly the knees and other large joints.
• Intermittent pain in tendons, muscles, joints, and bones
• Heart palpitations or an irregular heart beat (Lyme carditis)
• Episodes of dizziness or shortness of breath
• Inflammation of the brain and spinal cord
• Nerve pain
• Shooting pains, numbness, or tingling in the hands or feet
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
A Barksdale couple is answering the call to help others by traveling to Texas to assist refugees who are fleeing their homelands and seeking asylum in the United States.
Kim Bro and his wife Becky Brown will leave in two weeks to help at the massive humanitarian and public health crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The pair is volunteering at Annunciation House, a Catholic service organization that provides shelter, meals and clothing to refugees in El Paso.
"They have practically nothing and need help making that transition to getting to the families they will be staying with," said Bro, 67, who is retired from Northland College and paying his own way for the two-week stint.
The couple will be working with people who have been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and have been released into the United States as having credible claims for asylum. Some families are fleeing rampant violence, poverty and persecution in Honduras, Guatemala and other Central American countries.
Bro said his wife, who speaks far better Spanish than he, will make critical connections with the refugees.
"She will be explaining to people about how to make bus connections and things like that," he said. "With her around, I'll be able to be of more use than just washing floors, doing laundry or making sandwiches."
While in El Paso, he will be staying in volunteer quarters at the Annunciation House facility, which he said has room for up to 500 refugees.
The trip is the couple's first to Annunciation House. Bro said his informational packet said he would be spending two weeks "doing what I am told to do."
"I feel like I am being told that by one of the nuns at St. Agnes in Ashland," he said.
Bro already has made six trips to Honduras since 2012 to do similar humanitarian work there, part of Rotary Club and the United Presbyterian-Congregational Church projects in support of Latin American Rotary aid projects.
He said the hospitality he experienced in Honduras led him to volunteer at Annunciation House to help even more desperate refugees.
"It saddens me to see the way that people who have struggled as much as they have, who have been so thoughtful to me when I was in Honduras, are getting treated," he said. To Bro, it doesn't seem fair that refugees are suffering merely because they happened to be born in a different place than him.
Bro said news reports of harassment by the federal government of people who attempted to assist refugees also troubled him.
"I was just thinking — this is what we do for the tired, the hungry and the poor," he said
Bro said because of all this, he felt volunteering to help at Annunciation House was the right thing to do.
"I feel that, as an American, I ought to be down there at the border doing something similar to what I experienced. It's the least I can do. It is one small way I can show the same consideration that I have been shown."
He said despite grinding poverty, rampant crime and violence, the Honduran people invariably welcomed him and fellow Ashland Rotary Club members who visited the country to take part in school-improvement projects.
"There is a sense of going down to help others but I have been as much impressed by the extent to which people were hospitable to us," he said. "It was a very humbling experience.
Bro is the retired executive director of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College, and also served as the director of sustainability at the college.
After Bro returns from El Paso, he will be participating in an educational event for the newly formed Chequamegon Border Justice Coalition to help people learn about the border crisis. He will discuss both his Honduran and Annunciation House experiences. Physician Kathy Gang, another veteran of Honduras trips, will join him in the session.
"We want people to understand what conditions are like at the border, and what causes people to leave their homes in Central America and understand some of the ways that we can help to alleviate problems at the border and provide opportunities for people who are seeking asylum," Bro said.
The event is set for Oct. 15 from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the United Presbyterian-Congregational Church in Ashland.