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Grand Forks father, son to serve on same National Guard mission in Kosovo

Sgt. Maj. Mark Nelson, right, and his son Pfc. Derek Nelson.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - When it comes to Guard duty, Sgt. Maj. Mark Nelson has a simple agreement with Pfc. Derek Nelson.

"I'm going to be no harder or no easier to him than I am to any other soldier that I'm in charge of leading," Mark Nelson said.

It's a pledge his son holds him to.

"I do my own thing, and he'll tell me if it's jacked up," Derek Nelson said.

With all this in mind, the Grand Forks father and son leave Wednesday for Fargo, the first leg of a yearlong deployment that will ultimately have them stationed at Camp Bondsteel in eastern Kosovo.

Mark Nelson, a 45-year-old lieutenant with the Grand Forks Police Department, is in charge of Charlie Company of the 231st Maneuver Task Force, a unit that includes his 19-year-old son.

The pair gave each other buzz cuts Sunday night in preparation for the peacekeeping mission aimed at helping Kosovo grow as an independent nation.

"The desired end state to this mission is the safety and security of the Kosovar people and to allow them freedom of movement within their own country," Mark Nelson said.

700 troops

The Nelsons and their fellow soldiers depart Fargo on Saturday for several weeks of training in Indiana and Germany before arriving in Kosovo in November.

It will be the largest single deployment of North Dakota National Guard soldiers. Seven hundred troops from throughout North Dakota will join 700 soldiers from other states and about 800 soldiers from other NATO countries.

The younger Nelson, who enlisted on his own right out of high school, sees the trip as an adventure.

"I've lived here my entire life. It'll be good to get a change of scenery, you know; then you can appreciate home a little more," he said.

"How many people can say that they've been deployed to a foreign country before they even turn 21?"

For the older Nelson, who has been in the Guard for 27 years, it'll be his second stint overseas. He served in Afghanistan for more than a year and returned to the states in April 2007.

He expects the Kosovo mission will be similar, but with a key difference.

"I'll be doing my mission in Kosovo with two sides that are amenable to U.S. presence," he said. "I was doing that mission in Afghanistan where we were likely to run into negative consequences, whether it be firefights or IEDS or other things."

Better futures

Wanting to go to college but without the means to pay tuition, Mark Nelson joined the Guard for the educational benefits. His son signed up for similar reasons and plans to attend college on the G.I. Bill when he gets home.

In high school, Derek Nelson spent four years in Army JROTC. Two of his younger brothers, ages 15 and 13, have followed in his footsteps, leaving open the possibility of future family deployments.

Dawn Nelson said she takes comfort in knowing her husband and son will be in Kosovo together.

"I don't think I'll worry as much as when Mark was in Afghanistan," she said. "I know we're all going to miss them, but we've been through it before."

Both father and son were on active duty this spring helping in the flood fight. Derek Nelson said that, when the two are in uniform, their interactions are "strictly professional."

"I've never slipped up and called him Dad or anything like that."

Their joint deployment was not planned, but both agree it's special.

"To say that I'm not proud of him would be ridiculous," Mark Nelson said. "I'm honored to get a chance to lead him."