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Huhta followed her heart into the military

Staff Sergeant Miriam Huhta celebrated her 25th birthday Oct. 12 with a turbulent plane ride from Minneapolis to Brainerd, beginning a two-week leave from duty in Iraq. The four-day journey home took her from Kuwait to Germany to Atlanta to Minneapolis and finally Menahga.

Huhta's mother and aunt welcomed the Sebeka native back shortly after she landed. And the freezing temperatures reminded Huhta that she had definitely arrived in Minnesota. "Well, my first reaction was that I could not remember the last time I had been cold," she said. "When I arrived in Brainerd, it was snowing. It was probably 110 [degrees] in Kuwait -- quite a contrast."

She was a long way from Iraq and a short distance from home during her bumpy plane ride, but remained linked to both places.

"I was feeling very reflective," she said recalling the ride to Brainerd. "I was thinking of where I had come from and where I was coming back to."

The trip alone in the back of the low-flying commuter plane was an unsettling experience, Huhta said, and she almost became air sick for the first time in her life. Her thoughts, however, often settled on her comrades in arms.

"[I was] hoping that it would all go well with my buddies while I was gone," she said.

Huhta's two-week return to her large family in Sebeka and Menahga was a welcome removal from war-torn Iraq, although the temporary release from military duties was not an escape from military concerns. Indulging in some much-needed pampering, speaking at her old elementary school, catching up with family and recalling why she joined the Army National Guard occupied her freedom-filled days. But as Huhta returned to her community, she remained focused on her military mission and the soldiers she serves with on a base 60 miles north of Baghdad.

Traces of Iraq remained as a physical and psychological presence for Huhta throughout her leave, even after she removed the uniform she had worn traveling for four days. During a visit to Regis Hair Salon in Brainerd, the stylist had to strip built-up minerals out of Huhta's hair, she said. While she enjoyed the removal of desert remnants from her blonde locks, a trip to a tanning salon served as a link back to desert heat.

"[It] felt really nice to be warm again, but I stayed in there a little too long," she said as she rubbed a sunburned patch underneath her uniform.

Huhta wore civilian clothes during her leave, but put on military gear for speaking engagements with students at the Sebeka and Menahga elementary schools who sent letters to her overseas. Some of Huhta's former teachers addressed her as "Mimi," the name they knew her by as a child, rather than by her rank and the "Huhta" embroidered in black letters on her uniform. Wearing her camouflaged fatigues without carrying an M-16, her constant companion in Iraq, was a strange experience, she said.

"It felt like I was missing something," Huhta said.

The students asked questions such as if she had shot any bad guys and if it was hot over there.

Huhta took time to visit her old school and share her experiences with the community, but she primarily focused on her family during her leave.

A party last Tuesday to welcome Huhta home and celebrate her birthday served as an opportunity to reconnect with local relatives, eat cake and open presents. The family gathering in the basement of a Menahga assisted living complex took place the Tuesday before Huhta's Saturday, Oct. 28, departure for Iraq.

"It was nearly a going-away party, too," she said. "I had seen most of them at least in passing, but it was kind of nice to get all together. [There was] lots of hugs and love."

Huhta ate her favorite angel food cake and opened gifts, including a journal to take back to Iraq, drawing supplies and a dish with a message encouraging its owner to follow her dreams.

And last December, Huhta discovered evidence that she is following teenage dreams of serving her country when she unpacked a stash of ragged-edged notebook paper lined with her handwriting. She said she wrote many patriotic "poems and passionate essays" during her formative years in the mid-90s.

"It was pretty interesting to find them, ... humorous too," she said. A deep admiration for patriotic involvement inspired the literary phase. Several of her aunts and uncles served in the military, and the Huhta children were taught to love their country.

"We grew up understanding the price of freedom and the fact that freedom isn't free," she said. "People have paid a costly price for hundreds of years."

She recalled sharing some of her patriotic dreams with a Finnish foreign exchange student the family hosted. "I remember telling her that I was going to join the Army," Huhta said. "She told me 'no you won't, girls don't do that.' I said 'you watch.' And she's like 'OK, write me when you join."

Huhta enlisted in the National Guard at age 20. She doesn't recall writing the Finnish student with the news of her entrance into the Army, however. She was in nursing school and working two part-time jobs when she logged onto, which led to a call from a recruiter. "I thought 'You know what? I'm going to do this,'" she said about her decision. In addition to patriotic impulses, Huhta joined because she desired adventure, she said. She did not feel challenged enough by school and work. "I wanted to do something to make a difference," Huhta said. "For the challenge ... of venturing into unknown territory."

The life-changing decision was not a big surprise to some of Huhta's family members.

"I can see her doing it," said her brother, Pete Huhta, about the challenges of being a soldier. "I think she'd be able to handle pretty much anything."

Huhta's mother, Naemi, however, was less confident when her feminine daughter first donned fatigues. "I was very afraid, when she went in alone as a woman," she said. Her concerns eventually faded, however. She said female soldiers have done an excellent job in Iraq.

"I think every young person should go out and serve their country," Naemi said.

Growing up as the only girl in the family with seven older brothers helped Huhta develop her self-confidence. "I kind of grew up with the guidance that I should be able to accomplish whatever I wanted," she said. "I didn't receive any special treatment from them just because I was a girl." Her brothers have all been extremely supportive of her service in Iraq, she said.

Huhta serves with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division. She is the communications non-commissioned officer for a 25-person team on her base. She supports communication systems including radio, antennae, satellite, GPS systems, computers and printers. The heat and wind in Iraq can cause a lot of problems with the equipment, she said.

At the end of a day working in the desert, Huhta retires to the living quarters she shares with another soldier. The room contains a bunk bed, small lockers, a chest of drawers and personal belongings her mother sent after Huhta was settled on base. Drawing pads, graphite pencils, a pair of favorite pajamas, a photo album and personal books all remind her of home, she said.

Care packages from her mother and organizations such as Operation Minnesota Nice continue to bring a taste of America to Iraq for Huhta. There isn't a week that goes by that she and the other soldiers don't receive a shipment, she said. The soldiers keep expecting care package senders to lose interest.

"It amazes us how tenacious they are," she said.

Huhta's mother sends home-baked goodies such as cookies and banana bread along with personal care items. She also packs newsletters from Westside Laestadian Lutheran Church in Menahga. Huhta grew up attending the "little church on the hill" when it was located in Sebeka, she said. "We were very involved with the church," Huhta said. "[It was] kind of a center point for everything." There is no Laestadian service for Huhta to attend on base, but she is able to listen to sermons from the church headquarters online.

Life on a military base in Iraq both distracts and enhances her spiritual life, she said.

"[It's] distracting in that you aren't actively involved and surrounded by people who share your beliefs," she said. "But on the other hand, you also have a much ... more intimate understanding of how fragile life can be." It's a lesson Huhta has learned by witnessing the hardships of conflict -- hardships that impact all deployed soldiers. "We all know the nature of war," she said. "Even if you're not the one who's injured or directly linked to people who are. They're still your buddies and you still have that bond, that loyalty to them."

A sense of duty is why Huhta was prepared to return to Iraq after her leave and why she re-enlisted in the National Guard this summer. "I came home knowing that I was going to be here for a short period of time," she said. "I have no reservations about going back. It's that compulsion you have, your buddies are there." Huhta expects to remain in Iraq until late spring. And future deployments are a possibility. Her enlistment in the guard was scheduled to end in June 2007, but Huhta extended her commitment last July. She was not ready for the required period in inactive reserves, she said.

"I had a sense of needing to finish something," Huhta said. "It feels like there's still more for me to do."

She said working with a group of other soldiers gives her the sense of being a part in a bigger picture.

"You work as a team, kind of understanding that we're not finished with the things we started to do," she said. "We ... want to stick together. The bottom line is, I wouldn't want to sit at home and watch them go."

Huhta supports the American mission overseas, she said.

"Personally, I believe in exposing the people there to the opportunity they have for freedom and democracy," she said. "I think it's really important we're doing what we're doing. Everyday that we keep this overseas is a success in itself."

The passion for patriotism that began as a teenager continues to inspire Huhta. And her sense of duty to her fellow soldiers serves as a significant lure back to the Middle East. Huhta has returned to Army life in the heat of Iraq. But during her time in the cold climate of Minnesota she reconnected with family and the home where she learned the values of patriotism and loyalty that encourage her military service.