Karen Berger is one of 250 vets currently enrolled at Black Hills State University. She recently returned from a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan with the 842nd National Guard Engineer Company of Spearfish, Belle Fourche and Sturgis.
More than 20 million men and women will be honored this week for their service to this country. One of those is Black Hills State University senior Karen Berger. BHSU will honor veterans Wednesday at the University’s newly established Vets’ Center.

Berger, an outdoor education major, recently returned from a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan with the 842nd National Guard Engineer Company of Spearfish, Belle Fourche and Sturgis.

The unit deployed in September 2011 to provide construction and engineering support. The soldiers used bulldozers, scrapers, cranes, loaders and dump trucks to build and maintain roads, build forward operating bases, and construct horizontal wallsfor force protection.  

The outdoor education major said she is proud to be among the millions of people that will be honored this Veterans Day.

“It gives me the goose bumps,” Berger said. “I have a deep appreciation for all the vets. I can relate to them.”

Berger will be joining other BHSU vets at a Veterans Day Potluck Wednesday, Nov. 14 from 11a.m. to 1 p.m. at the University’s new Vets Center located in the David B. Miller Yellow Jacket Student Union. “It is for the 842nd but it is open to the campus,” said Chris Baley, BHSU Vets Club president and a veteran of the U.S. Navy.  Baley said Veterans Day has always held special meaning to him, even before he became a veteran himself.

“I’ve always had some member of my family in the military,” he said.

Berger and Baley are two of 250 veteran students currently enrolled at BHSU which has the highest percentage among South Dakota schools. The Vets Center provides a support system for veterans, those currently serving in the military and their dependents.  Baley said he anticipates many members of the 842nd will utilize the Vets Center once they start classes again spring semester.

Berger said she plans to use the center.

Berger signed up for the National Guard in 2006 as a way to pay for school and open up new opportunities. “I wanted to see where it would take me,” Berger said of being apart of the National Guard.

Berger always knew that there was a possibility for deployment, but she was still not prepared when she heard the news in 2009. Her National Guard unit had helped with snowstorms and flooding throughout the state, but going to a war-torn country would be a new kind of challenge.

“I was pretty nervous,” she said. “I’m a person that likes to know what is going to happen. I did not like the unpredictability, the uncertainty. I was just really hoping for the best.”

During the deployment the unit of about 160 soldiers was split up and scattered around Afghanistan for different engineering missions. Berger’s platoon was stationed in the remote Ghazni province near Pakistan. “It was one of the more dangerous provinces,” she said.  

Berger endured extreme temperatures, from minus 17 and snow in the winter to nearly 120 F in the summer, no running water, limited electricity, indirect fire and threats. Berger’s unit worked with the Afghan National Army; however, as a female soldier she rarely had any close contact with Afghan soldiers. While the viewpoint of women’s role in Afghan society is changing, women are still viewed as inferior to men.

“You very rarely saw women out,” Berger said. “It was an eye opener.”  

Many of the Afghan soldiers were inquisitive about the women soldiers. “It was out of the norm for them,” she said.

Although reluctant at first, looking back on her deployment Berger said she wouldn’t change anything.  “I am extremely glad I went. It was very much a life-changing experience,” she said. “You have more respect for what we have here in the United States.”  

She even signed up for another six years, with another possibility of deployment.

The 842nd unit spent a week in Fort Bliss, Texas before returning home to the Northern Hills earlier this fall. The soldiers were welcomed home by hundreds of family, friends and community members.

“It brought tears to my eyes to see the support of the community. It was so heartfelt. You could tell they wanted to be there and appreciated what we did,” Berger said.