More than 650 Minnesota National Guard soldiers deployed for a nearly year-long overseas mission in Kuwait on Sunday.
Bridges Area Learning Center Coordinator Dave Brown was one of them.
Brown — who has been the coordinator of the alternative high school program in the Prior Lake-Savage Area School District since 2009 — was told earlier in the summer he would be leaving in September.
"In the military, you have to be ready for a deployment," Brown said. "That's part of what the military is about. Even so, even though you're like, 'I know part of what I'm here for is this,' when it comes I found I wasn't prepared for the profound effect."
Brown graduated from Prior Lake High School in 1990. In 1995, he got a job teaching science at Moorhead High School before moving to the science department at Blaine High School.
In 2002, he joined the staff of Prior Lake High School as a science teacher.
"I always felt the high school experience in Prior Lake was something unique and special," Brown said. "The teachers, all the staff, the administration — it was just really awesome and I wanted to be a part of it now that I was in the teaching profession."
In 2001, Brown watched as the Twin Towers fell in New York City on Sept. 11. After seeing the attack and its effect on the nation, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
"It created a motivation in me like I've never experienced before that it was time that I could do what I should to support our country in a time of need," Brown said. "I just felt I had a responsibility that I was able to contribute and that I should contribute and do my part."
After he left the Navy, Brown wanted to continue to serve in the military while also balancing his education career and personal life. So he joined the National Guard in 2009.
"For those of us that serve in the National Guard, it is an additional challenge to balance our professional lives with military lives and of course, family lives," Brown said. "I'm not sure how it would work if I didn't have my wife, who is super understanding and supportive, as well as my family and children. ... There's no way I could balance it if I didn't have a district that supported me in my service as well."
Brown married Prior Lake High School Spanish teacher Maria Lecceardone-Brown in 2009. The couple has four daughters.
That summer, Brown was told the Prior Lake-Savage Area School District was going to begin offering an alternative high school program. He applied for the coordinator position while taking part in a National Guard Officer Candidate School in Alabama.
"It's boot camp on steroids," Brown said. "It is an intense experience. We're talking 15 to 18 hour days every day of the week for two weeks. While we're doing our training down there and sweating and exhausted, an officer comes to me and said 'I got a call from your boss and he wants to interview you.'"
The interview was set. In the middle of a field training mission spanning multiple days, Brown was pulled aside and given a cell phone for the interview.
"We'd been in the field for many days — sleeping in the woods, field rations, conducting missions in the Alabama heat, like 110 degrees," Brown said. "I'm thinking to myself, 'How am I going to do this interview? I'm exhausted and tired and sweating and haven't thought about education in months.'"
But he did it, with the sound of tanks and mortars in the background. He was offered the coordinator position a week later.
"I went into the military late and people ask me why — a more traditional path would be to enlist after high school," Brown said. "I think that's what makes me a good fit for Bridges because I'm maybe not the most traditional as well."
He began working at the Bridges Area Learning Center when it moved into its current location in a strip mall on Franklin Trail in Prior Lake. On some weekends and for a few weeks in the summer, Brown served as the platoon leader for the 434th Chemical Company in the Minnesota National Guard and then as an assistant operations chemical officer for the brigade engineer battalion.
For the last two-and-a-half years, Brown was the commander of the 434th Chemical Company. The command position ended last spring and he was moved to the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division.
The division is training for a month at Fort Hood in Texas before moving to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait until July 2019.
According to a news release from the National Guard, the division works within Operation Spartan Shield which focuses on relations and security in the Middle East.
"This is a challenge that our Red Bulls are trained and ready for," Division Command Sgt. Maj. Joe Hjelmstad said in the release. "Our citizen-soldiers will return to their families and employers with new skills and experience that will make them even more valuable members of their communities."
The overseas mission is the second for Brown, who participated in the Norwegian Reciprocal Troop Exchange earlier in the summer. Brown spent two weeks training in Norway.
In Kuwait, the division is training with other units and forces, Brown said.
"The U.S. military is the best-trained, best-equipped force," Brown said. "A lot of people want to train with us. Our role is helping all the training and all the work that's happening there."
Many communities in the southwest metro have soldiers deployed to Kuwait as part of the division, including:
- Prior Lake: 1
- Shakopee: 5
- Savage: 10
- Jordan: 1
- Chanhassen: 1
- Chaska: 2
- Eden Prairie: 7
- Minnetonka: 4
- Wayzata: 1
- Orono: 1
- Shoreview: 4
- Excelsior: 2
- Victoria: 4
- Carver: 3
- Plymouth: 5
- Spring Park 4
There will be at least one familiar face in Kuwait for Brown — he is serving with 2016 Bridges Area Learning Center graduate Andre Hanhvichith.
Prior Lake High School Assistant Principal Heather Fitzloff is serving as the coordinator for the Bridges program until Brown returns. During that time, construction of a new Bridges Area Learning Center building next to Twin Oaks Middle School in Prior Lake will be underway.
The funding for the building was included in the $109.3 million referendum approved by voters in November 2017. Brown will return in the nick of time for the opening of the building in the fall of 2019.
"It's going to be absolutely amazing," Brown said. "It's going to be beautiful, in a great location, a great space for students that we now know need different methods and different pathways to get their diplomas."
Brown said the support he's received from the district, his coworkers and his family has been essential.
"When I see soldiers that don't have that support system, I see the effect it has on them — it takes a toll," Brown said. "That support in both words and actions is incredibly helpful."