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To Iraq and back, to make a difference

Kayla Simon of Frazee. Submitted photo1 / 3
Kayla and Darius Simon and their four children. Submitted photo2 / 3
Kayla Simon in Iraq with the tethered blimp used for aerial surveillance. Submitted photo.3 / 3

In her quiet, steady way, Iraq War veteran Kayla Simon of Frazee has made an outsized difference in the community, and people have noticed.

Simon, 34, a married mother of four with an unusual career, is one of 21 Minnesota veterans to be awarded the Veterans' Voices Award by the Minnesota Humanities Center.

The award goes to veterans who have shown exemplary community service beyond their military service.

From a host of nominees, eight On the Rise veterans (age 40 and under) and 13 Legacy veterans (age 41 and over) were selected by a panel of their peers to receive the award.

The war in Iraq

Simon joined the National Guard in high school, and in her final semester at M State in Detroit Lakes was deployed to Iraq. She served for 19 months in 2004-2005.

Trained in radio communications, she volunteered to be trained for a crew that operated a large tethered observation blimp called an aerostat. Cameras on the blimp allowed the crew to see more than three miles in any direction, and she and her team were able to guide American forces in to capture insurgents, helping tanks and soldiers avoid deadly explosions.

They even watched over Mosul during the first election in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, looking for signs of insurgents.

Her time in Iraq was bittersweet—bitter in that a run-in with the blimp during a violent sandstorm caused her a back injury that exists to this day.

But sweet in that it was there that she met her husband, Darius Simon, who was deployed with the Louisiana National Guard. They met in one of Saddam's former palaces in the heavily-guarded Green Zone in Baghdad, with pools and food shops, used for rest and recreation by the U.S. military.

They were married in 2007 and lived in Louisiana for awhile, before moving to Minnesota to raise their family. Their children are Gavin, 10, Hunter, 8, Reed, 6, and Charlette, 7 months. Simon's parents, Mike and Julie Bellefeuille, live in Frazee.

Aerostats have long been used for border security work, and as part of the JLENS team in Iraq "we watched the main routes for suspicious activity," she said. The crew took turns inside running the eye-in-the-sky cameras, and her outside job was to bring the tethered blimp back to earth. She was perched on the edge of the landing pad, operating the control box that set the speed of different winches as they reeled in the large white blimp. "My job was to make sure it came in evenly," she said, and then others on the crew would grab dangling ropes and feed them into the winch system to secure the blimp during docking.

She was injured when the strong winds of a shamal sandstorm came roaring in and forced the blimp down and up like the wind was dribbling a giant basketball. The blimp itself didn't strike Simon, but the force of the wind sent her flying, perhaps eight feet in the air, and when she hit the ground she injured her back. She still has an impinged vertebrae. But she stayed in the military and finished out her Iraq tour with an honorable discharge.

A groundbreaking career

And it doesn't seem to have slowed her down any. As one of two college social workers hired by M State a year ago, she is in a unique position to help students with hunger, transportation, and day care problems. "Anything that's not academics keeping you from coming to class and being successful in school," she said. "A lot of the time they can't balance work and school, there's no money to make ends meet, no food at home. If you're sitting there hungry, it's hard to focus on anything else."

She started Ruby's Pantry at M State, which provides wholesale food products once a month from corporations like Tyson Chicken or ConAgra. Anyone in the community can join that program. "We average 300 'shares' per month, which is two large shopping baskets," she said.

To provide food on a more regular basis, she also started a more traditional-style food pantry at the Detroit Lakes and Wadena M State campuses (she works at both) so students can get regular access to food. They're open during school hours.

The food pantries are funded through donations, We Care receipt stamps from Central Market (she collects them) and unused food from Ruby's Pantry. She is also working with the Student Council to do fundraising to keep the campus food shelves stocked.

"The food pantries are definitely being used," she said. "I also follow up to make sure they (students) are aware of other services in town."

Transportation was an issue when Simon started. At first, the Vineyard Church gave her a donation to buy bus transit tokens for students.Then the Student Council stepped up to help, she said. Students can now use the dial-a-ride Becker County Transit buses for free as part of their M State activities fee.

And Simon, who has a master's degree in social work from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, also helps students find daycare and inform students of benefits and resources available to them. She naturally has a soft spot for veterans. "You really don't know what's out there until you're in a situation," she said. Students are often dealing with the drastic income cut that can come when one spouse quits work to go to school, or when work hours have to be pared back for school.

"My niche and my specialty here is resources, it's what I do," she said. People are starting to understand what a college social worker does, and more colleges are starting to hire them, she said. "It started out slow, now I come back from lunch and there are 15 phone messages waiting for me. I love that they know I'm here."

'It's definitely a team effort'

As one of a group of parents who would meet informally at a park or home once a week, Simon about a year ago also helped restart the parent-teacher organization in Frazee-Vergas, which had been inactive for several years. "We run a book fair, do bingo, that kind of thing," she said. "We try to do something once every three months so we don't overwork the volunteers we have, but we stay relevant. It's nice to do free things for families."

Simon said she would never be able to do what she does without the help and support of her husband Darius (who works as an outreach case manager for the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans), her parents and her co-workers.

"I might be the one nominated for the award," she said, "but there's no way I could get all this stuff done by myself—it's definitely a team effort, every way you look at it."

Awards will be presented at the Veterans' Voices Award Ceremony (a public event) on Monday, Sept. 11, at the University of St. Thomas Anderson Student Center in Saint Paul.

The awards are part of the Humanities Center's Veterans' Voices program, that draws on the power of the humanities to call attention to the contributions and often-missed stories of veterans.

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