by Jim Boyle
Homecoming was just as Staff Sgt. Nicholas Stai imagined it, but the final hours and minutes of his 11-month separation from his family proved to be some of the most excruciating.
His excitement had been building as members of the 257th Military Police Company boarded coach buses in St. Cloud to make their way to the Monticello Armory.
Stai saw people he knew who had camped along the parade route. He waved at them, and they waved at him and the others.
When the bus finally stopped, the commander rose and offered his last instructions to the riders.
“He was brief, but he said what he needed to say,” Stai said. “But it seemed like forever.”
Inside the gymnasium at the Monticello Community Center were Stai’s wife, Andrea, and four children, ages 3, 5, 7 and 11. The Buffalo family was among the well-wishers, family and friends who packed the gym April 11 to welcome home the 257th Military Police Company.
“We were so excited,” Andrea Stai said. “I was so excited to have him back. That was it. I was happy. I was truly happy for the first time in 11 months. Come on home, buddy, I thought to myself.”
Andrea Stai had positioned herself and their kids where she thought her husband would be when they entered the raucous gymnasium and fell into formation. She had an idea from her work as a Family Readiness Group coordinator work at drills.
“It worked out way better than I even thought it would,” she said of their location directly across from their husband and daddy.
And when they were finally released from their deployment, Nicholas Stai’s four children came running to him. Andrea Stai followed closely behind.
“I got down on one knee and they all hung on me,” Stai said. “It was just as I pictured it would be.”
Alexis, 11, is the oldest of the four. Then there’s Aiden, 7; Calleigh, 5; and Olivia, 3.
Skype, thank you card connected Stai family
Before this reunion, the family’s contact was limited to occasional Skype sessions and one special trip to Elk River that linked them on the Friday before Veteran’s Day.
“The kids missed their dad,” Andrea Stai said. “It was hard for them, in a lot of ways more difficult for them than me.
“They had their feelings and emotions. … Sometimes I knew what to say and how to deal with it, and sometimes it kind of came out of left field.”
Of course, every birthday and event at school was a little bittersweet. But after about three months of absence, the Stai family minus one fell into a new normal.
“You still have moments, all the way down to little Miss Olivia,” Andrea Stai said. “But not necessarily every day.”
These moments were among the many reasons she helps coordinate the Family Readiness Group and she supports Yellow Ribbon groups near and far.
When news of a world-record-setting venture to get a 16-by-48-foot card signed by as many people as possible to welcome the unit home, she knew she had to do it.
She couldn’t make it to the Minnesota Vikings game or a number of high profile card signings, but when it was said to be making a stop in Elk River, where she had a fellow FRG coordinator, the decision was easy.
“It felt positive, like we were doing something to support our soldiers and to bring an awareness to what they were doing,” she said. “I think the card was a very cool thing.”
Several sections of the card were hung at the homecoming. The Stais, having signed it at the level of Olivia, could easily see their signatures.
So could Nicholas Stai.
“It felt good to see we had so much support back home,” he said.
The 120-plus members of the 257th Military Police Company left Minnesota May 28, 2012, for training prior to their overseas deployment.
According to a Minnesota National Guard Operation Enduring Freedom unit overview background sheet, the unit conducted operations in the northeastern part of Afghanistan.
Nicholas Stai said members of the 257th were in Afghanistan training members of the Afghan National Army to take over a jail they had been overseeing. The group specializes in detention operations.
When their work was done, the 257th arrived at Fort Bliss, Texas, March 23 and completed its demobilization process.
The unit completed numerous medical and dental exams, mountains of paperwork and re-employment counseling, education benefits, medical benefits and reintegration during its stay at Fort Bliss.
They headed home April 11. The 257th arrived first at the St. Cloud Regional Airport before making its way from the secured Minnesota National Guard Aviation Facility to Monticello.
That night, the Stai family enjoyed a walk around Buffalo Lake. They went down to the water and skipped rocks.
“It was perfect,” Nicholas Stai said. “It was just what we needed.”
Deployment second for Staff Sgt. Stai
Nicholas Stai’s longest deployment was an 18-month run in 2004 and 2005 when he was part of the 216 Air Defense Artillery Battallion in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The unit earned a Valorious Unit Award for its work.
After that he became a full-time noncommissioned training officer for the 257th Military Police Company. The unit deployed once between Nicholas Stai’s two deployments, but for that one he stayed back.
He has spent 3.5 years as an administrative officer and the last 4.5 as a training officer. This last go around, three of the four training officers had to go. He was proud to serve this way again.
“It’s important to be able to protect my family and the people around me and our community,” he said. “Just being able to serve is a wonderful thing.”
He appreciates when people appreciate what he and his comrades and their families back home endure.
Thank you card making big statement
The thank you card, a project of the Minnesota Army National Guard and the Elk River American Legion, made a nice statement.
The two organizations joined forces last year, and they continue to work on their goal of getting 257,000 signatures, Master Sgt. Charlie Bebus said.
The 257th returned home a month earlier than expected.
Mike Beyer, the commander of the Elk River American Legion, said it’s the Legion’s intent, once this group has progressed in their reintegration, to throw a party for them at the Legion.
“This is our way to give back,” Beyer said last year of the efforts to get signatures on the card and to host a welcome home party.
Andrea Stai said she would gladly attend such an event.
Time away not easy for those left at home
“I see first-hand every day the amount of service and what soldiers and families give up and the hardships,” Andrea Stai said.
Things went well on the Stai family home front during Nicholas Stai’s deployment to Afghanistan, but it wasn’t always easy.
“It was challenging, but we did OK,” she said. “You just kind of hang on and do what you need to do each day. The schedules and routines hold it together pretty well.”
The Stais kept busy and tried to do fun stuff, but it was never as fun as it could have been.
“You never let go of that worry, and you never let go of that feeling that something’s missing,” Andrea Stai said. “It’s there, lurking in the corner of every holiday and every event you go to.”
Faith helps. So does technology that linked them about every other week for about 10 to 15 minutes for Skype time. A few times, they could Skype for nearly an hour.
“When Nick was in Iraq, the webcam was not really workable,” Andrea Stai said.
With Skype, each child got some one-on-one time. It was limited, especially on school nights.
There were times when Andrea Stai especially missed her husband. One of the more memorable times was during Olivia’s potty training escapades.
Andrea Stai was downstairs when Olivia became determined to flush her toilet paper down, despite the fact that the toilet had clogged.
It overflowed the bathroom, “and I came up the stairs to water dripping down the steps of our split level.”
It went through the floor and down onto the ceiling of the downstairs bathroom, where it wrecked the light fixture.
“That was very memorable — and difficult,” Andrea Stai said. “Our poor 3-year-old didn’t know any better. She just kept flushing.”
Andrea Stai took on that assignment and others. She also had help from neighbors and family that live close by. Not all military families are as supported.
Stai advocates for Beyond Yellow Ribbon
Andrea Stai says she didn’t tap the fledgling Yellow Ribbon group in Buffalo at all.
“They were just getting started, and I didn’t know who to talk to,” she said. “I knew a few people in the Monticello Beyond the Yellow Ribbon group, but I didn’t have too much cause to use them personally.”
Others have, and the Monticello BTYR group reached out to the families of eight newborns to provide gifts and diapers. They also help with baby-sitting duties at FRG meetings that Andrea Stai has led.
So she’s become a big advocate for the BTYR groups, including the one in Elk River. She was impressed with the turnout out this past November at the card signing.
“It was nice to see so many people come out and sign the card,” she said. “It wasn’t our first chilly night, but wasn’t winter yet and it was cold. There was definitely a good turnout. It was nice to see the support from the Elk River community.”
When completely assembled, the size of the card should get it in the Guinness Book of World Records.
“My biggest pride and joy is keeping members of the 257th in the thoughts and prayers of people, reminding them there are still people overseas in a war,” Bebus said.
Staff Sgt. Liz Lindskoog, a recruiter for the National Guard along with Bebus, said at one point there were over 100,000 signatures, but 257,000 signatures may have been a stretch to achieve. Signatures will continue to be sought up until Memorial Day, Lindskoog said.
“It has been a lot of fun to help with this,” she said.
Of men and women from the 257th Military Police Company, a few of them are reportedly from Elk River. They will be among those invited to the Elk River American Legion welcome home party.