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With dwindling Guard numbers, small North Dakota towns remember their roles

CANDO, N.D. -- Gary Rader was in Saudi Arabia in early December 1990, serving in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm with the North Dakota National Guard's Cando-based 132nd Quartermaster Company, a water purification unit, when his wife, Nancy,...

CANDO, N.D. -- Gary Rader was in Saudi Arabia in early December 1990, serving in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm with the North Dakota National Guard's Cando-based 132nd Quartermaster Company, a water purification unit, when his wife, Nancy, gave birth to their daughter, Annie, back home in Towner County Medical Center.

The next day, Nancy was back at Cando's National Guard Armory, helping the local family support group prepare a community dinner for families of troops serving overseas.

"I just had to bring her here and show her off," Nancy recalled in a recent visit back to that same armory. "When Annie was born, women generally stayed in the hospital for three days. I worked for the doctor that delivered her and I talked him into letting me go."

With a total of 165 soldiers -- 11 percent of the town's 1,500 residents at the time -- from the North Dakota National Guard's Cando-based 132nd Quartermaster Company, and the 133rd Quartermaster Detachment serving in the Persian Gulf, Cando became known as the most patriotic city in America.

The local troop numbers included soldiers who were part of Guard detachments in nearby Langdon and Cavalier. That that didn't seem to matter, as television, magazine and newspaper reporters and photographers from all over the world converged on the town between the fall of 1990 and spring of 1991.

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Today, a quarter-century later, the community-owned Cando armory is anything but a mess hall filled with daily or even monthly activity.

The 132nd now is located in Grand Forks, which also hosts the 188th Air Defense Artillery.

The 133rd Quartermaster Detachment, now based in Grafton, as well as units in Bottineau and Rugby, are being deactivated.

In the Cando armory building, which is owned by the city, the lone reminder of the North Dakota National Guard's proud history is a framed red-white-and-blue banner that hangs on a gymnasium wall. It reads: 132nd Quartermaster Company; North Dakota; Lords of the Water; along with a depiction of the U.S. flag flying over the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. The banner also displays the words, "Liberty," "Justice" and "God Bless America."

Guard realignment

In the early 1990s, during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, some 4,000 volunteer soldiers wore National Guard uniforms in North Dakota.

The Army Guard's numbers topped 3,350 in 1997 and in 2011. However, the ranks have been thinning since.

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"Even though there have been a few years where recruitment and retention has been good, we have not been able to meet or sustain our end strength of nearly 3,400 Army Guardsmen," said Capt. Amber Balken, public information officer.

The North Dakota Army National Guard ended 2015 with 3,015 soldiers.

"This is what has made us vulnerable on the national level," Adj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann said.

The National Guard announced earlier this year that the 816th Engineering Company, an earth-moving unit based in Dickinson, along with a detachment in nearby Mott, would be

dissolved.

"That was a federal decision to remove that unit from North Dakota. It will be leaving North Dakota and probably will reappear somewhere else, in other states, where they have the numbers to recruit," Dohrmann said.

The decision to deactivate the 132nd in Cando was made last year.

This past March, it announced that detachments to the 132nd, located in Grafton, Rugby and Bottineau also would be deactivated in August 2017.

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"It all stemmed from looking into the future," Dohrmann said. "Typically, it's been very difficult to recruit in parts of rural North Dakota. It comes down to how many people live in the 50-mile area around the communities. The vast majority of people are driving more than 50 miles to drill there."

The fate of the 191st Military Police Company in Mayville will be determined this summer.

Dohrmann recently visited the community to talk about the Guard and the potential closing. One of the main messages he took away from that visit was that residents want to be part of the conversation.

"What we've told these communities is that we'll work very hard to maintain that relationship, that presence, because we need their young men and women to be part of our organization, and out of respect to the support they have given us over the years. We want to honor that," Dohrmann said.

"We need to have that uniform presence throughout the state to help our recruiting efforts. We're working very hard at getting out the message of what a great team we have. The best thing we can do is to get our instrength numbers up," he said. "It's imperative that we get up to our authorized strength. With what's going on around the globe, and with disaster response, we need them."

Rich tradition

Cando has a rich tradition with the National Guard, which has had a presence in the community since 1922.

Most residents today have family members -- fathers, mothers, grandparents and great grandparents -- who have served in the Guard.

During World War II, the Cando unit mobilized with the North Dakota National Guard's 164th Infantry Regiment, a group of more than 1,700 mostly North Dakota soldiers that reinforced the beleaguered 1st Marine Division, which had been in a prolonged battle with Japanese troops for control of Henderson Airfield, a strategic site on the South Pacific island of Guadalcanal. The 164th fought for about four months, finally prevailing in February 1943.

The Cando unit was mobilized again in the early 1950s during the Korean War.

"During the first Gulf war, we got a lot of support from those veterans who had been deployed in World War II and Korea," said Karen Benson, veterans service officer in Towner County. "Even Vietnam veterans came to help, to offer support. They stepped up and support us in very tangible ways."

Benson, whose husband Staff Sgt. Sgt. Dean Benson has spent more than 40 years in the Guard, was co-leader of Cando's military family support group when the local soldiers were deployed to the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s.

She's still an active volunteer and leader in the North Dakota National Guard's Family Readiness Program.

"Now, we have the next generation, those kids who were 10 or 12 during Desert Storm, they're involved in the Guard and other branches," Benson said. "If I can step up and help someone who is getting ready to go, that's what I'm going to do. It's a way to pay it forward.

"North Dakota is one big small town. Times and technology have changed, but feelings and emotions don't."

Media spotlight

Karen Benson recalls the onslaught of national media in 1990 and 1991.

"It was overwhelming," she said. "It started out very simply."

That changed, she said, after Minnesota Public Radio saw a story about Cando's contribution to the war effort and decided to visit the community.

"The reporter from Minnesota did a wonderful little piece," she said. "It was good. It was great. It was like we're one big family. Then it went national and it just spread like wildfire."

The media attention was welcomed at first, but it soon became a burden.

"We were featured all over. I learned a lot about the media," Nancy Rader said. "I decided maybe not all reporters, but certainly a good number of them, came out and already had a good idea of the story they were going to tell, whether that was the whole truth or not.

"Sometimes it was hurtful," she Rader said. "It was one of the tabloids. We had sheep at the time. I was very pregnant. The news crew came from New York and they asked 'what time do the animals get up in the morning?'

"So, we went out and I just pitched some hay into a feeder and they took a picture of that, and then they wrote this story. When it came out, some Legion members from other states contacted the Legion here to see if this poor pregnant woman needed help.

"And my father-in-law, he had been a Legionnaire since the time he got out of the service. They lived with us. So, he was really hurt. It made it look like it was much more traumatic than it really was -- but it made for a really good story."

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTA
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