Pair of Waukon High School graduates share their experiences after returning home from serving with the Iowa National Guard in Kuwait

Family reunion ... The family of 2015 Waukon High School graduate Adam Benzing greeted him at the airport in Waterloo upon his April 7 return from deployment in Kuwait with the Iowa National Guard. Pictured above at that reunion are, left to right, Bruce, Tyler, Adam, Leah, Carter and Nathan Benzing. Submitted photo.

Proud mother ... Andrew Miller, a 2018 graduate of Waukon High School, shares a hug with his mother, Maria Baker of Waukon, following his arrival at the Waterloo Airport April 7 after he returned from deployment overseas with the Iowa National Guard. Miller was serving with Company C, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment in Kuwait for the past 11 months. Submitted photo.

Harpers Ferry hometown welcome ... Family, friends and community members from Harpers Ferry turned out Wednesday evening, April 7 to welcome home a Harpers Ferry native son, 2015 Waukon High School graduate Adam Benzing, following his return from an overseas deployment with the Iowa National Guard. Benzing, pictured in the olive green hooded sweatshirt in the middle of the photo, had been serving with Company C, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment in Kuwait for the past 11 months. After his family picked him up at the Waterloo Airport earlier that Friday, Benzing returned to his native Harpers Ferry that evening to this hometown welcome arranged by his parents. Submitted photo courtesy of Cindy Heffern.

Family welcome ... Family members and friends of 2018 Waukon High School graduate Andrew Miller welcomed him home following his arrival both at the Waterloo Airport and his family’s home in Waukon as he returned from his 11-month deployment in Kuwait with the Iowa National Guard April 7. Pictured directly above, Miller shares a moment with his father, Ryan Baker of Waukon, in front of the family’s home in Waukon. Pictured at right above, Miller wraps his arms around his siblings, Ethan, London and Colten Baker (left to right), after his arrival at the airport in Waterloo. Submitted photos.

by Kelli Boylen

Two Waukon High School (WHS) graduates recently returned from spending nearly 11 months in Kuwait with the Iowa National Guard. Adam Benzing, a 2015 WHS graduate, of Harpers Ferry, and Andrew Miller, a 2018 WHS graduate, of Cedar Rapids, recently shared some of the experiences of their deployment.

Benzing, Miller and other members of the Iowa National Guard were deployed May 28, 2020 and returned home earlier this month, April 7. The unit Benzing belongs to is headquartered out of Oelwein, and Miller is based out of Waterloo.

Although the two of them were both deployed at the same time and are both members of the Iowa National Guard Company C, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, they belong to different units within the regiment and did not get the opportunity to interact during their time there, nor did they know each other in school.

More than 500 Iowa National Guard members served in the Middle East during the past year. We thank Adam and Andrew, and all their fellow service members, for their service.

SPC Adam Benzing says the one thing he missed the most when he was stationed in Kuwait - besides his friends and family - was the color green. The area where his regiment’s base was located was surrounded by sand, and in the middle of the afternoons the ground would be so hot they couldn’t pick up a rock because it would burn their hand.

Miller said besides friends and family, he missed fast food.

Benzing shared that when they first got off the plane upon arrival in Kuwait they thought it was hot because they were near the engines of the plane, but as they moved away from the plane they realized it was simply that hot outside.

Miller said, “You know how when you open your oven and that wave of hot air hits your face? The summer there was like that all the time. It was not only hot, but also windy.”

The primary mission of the local pair’s 133rd Infantry Regiment involved area security and force protection operations at an American military base not far from Kuwait City. Their job duties varied each day, and they often performed maintenance work on a newer model of armored military vehicles and prepped equipment.

Benzing says the heat made their work even more important. “You can’t just go through the motions,” he said. “Everything had to work well and be where you need it.”

Daytime temperatures were usually above 100 degrees, but often the nights were in the 40s. The best time of the day to be outside was evenings when the temperature was enjoyable.

“The first month we were all just sunburned, but then we got conditioned to it,” Benzing said. He also experienced sand storms and said if you were outside at all during that you would be so full of sand you would need to shower.

Benzing and Miller were each assigned to a group of four to six other guardsmen, and those group members not only worked together, they also spent their downtime together, ate together and slept in the same areas of the barracks.

“By the end of our time it was like we had been friends forever. We knew each other really well, we often had nothing to do but sit and tell stories,” Benzing shared, noting that he became known for telling “dad” jokes. “They would tell me they were sick of my dad jokes, but they always came back for more.”

Miller also said he really enjoyed the friends he made in his group. He says he was the guy who they teased and gave a hard time for small mistakes - all in good fun.

The groups not only shared their life stories, they shared snacks that were sent from family back home. Benzing says his favorite was beef jerky, but he says nothing ever went to waste.

Miller was taken by surprise when he received about 14 packages filled with junk food and novelty items for his birthday. He, of course, shared his bounty, but also received a lot of ribbing for the amount of treats he received.

Benzing slept in open-air barracks that were air-conditioned, but a fan was still a prized possession and he says it ran all night. Miller lived in a tent shared with eight other people and they did have air conditioning to deal with hot days.

Both Benzing and Miller were disappointed that COVID prevented them and the other guardsmen from going sightseeing and experiencing the culture of the area where they were serving.

They wore masks when they were around others besides their immediate groups. They quarantined for two weeks before going to Kuwait, and had to sanitize their work areas regularly. Because of the strict protocols followed, COVID was not really an issue on the base where they were stationed.

Benzing said when COVID shut down their indoor weight room they set one up outside, using metal, chains and whatever else they could find. Eventually, they received donated weight equipment from folks back home. He says once they set up a shade tarp it was a good place to work out.

Miller was settled in a different area of their post, and they actually started out with an outdoor weight room for the first few months but were then able to secure an indoor area to exercise.

Although they couldn’t call or text directly with their phones, they could purchase wi-fi pucks which are a type of mobile hotspot. With that, they were able to make contact through apps like Facebook messenger.

During his downtime, Benzing also spent time doing his homework. Despite spotty internet connections and it taking over a month for textbooks to arrive, he was able to finish the electrical apprenticeship program he was working on through Penn Foster College. Prior to being deployed, Benzing was working for Decorah Electric.

Benzing’s parents, Leah and Bruce Benzing from Harpers Ferry, picked him up at the Waterloo airport and they went out to eat at Buffalo Wild Wings. He was planning on coming back to Harpers Ferry, unpacking and taking a nap. Instead, his mom had asked friends and neighbors to be out to greet him in their small riverside hometown. It was a little overwhelming.

“When I saw everyone lined up along the street to welcome me home, it made it all worth it,” Benzing said. “A big thank you to everyone who came, I really wasn’t expecting it. And thank you to my parents for taking care of things while I was away.”

When asked what the best thing is about being back home, Benzing simply replied, “Everything.”

As soon as he could after returning to Allamakee County, Benzing was on the Mississippi River, fishing with his family.

Miller said he also spent downtime overseas talking with friends and working out, as well as playing cards, reading, and when the internet was working they watched Netflix.

While in Kuwait, Miller was promoted to Sergeant. With this rank, he was the leader of his group, and he was the one who made sure the orders from those higher up were completed well.

Miller worked construction before being deployed and is currently looking for employment upon his return home. He is also interested in obtaining an electrician’s certificate.

On his first day home, Miller reconnected with his family, including his parents, Maria and Ryan Baker of Waukon, and his younger siblings, Ethan, Colten and London Baker, who are ages 14, 12 and 10, respectively. Miller spent his first night home celebrating with friends. He says he never realized how much he took for granted seeing his friends and family face to face.

His mom made his favorite meal of pasta shells for his first meal back home. “That was the most delicious meal ever!” he said.

Miller says he is so thankful for his family. “My parents were so supportive of me the entire time,” he shared.