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Guardsmen headed to Afghanistan are treated to Blues game in style

ST. LOUIS, Mo -- Soldiers and Airmen of the Missouri National Guard bound for Afghanistan were recently treated to a St. Louis Blues hockey game courtesy of Blues player Erik Johnson and Northwestern Mutual - The Qualy Group.

The servicemen watched the Nov. 20 Blues versus the New Jersey Devils game from Johnson's luxury suite.

The group is part of the Guard's fifth Agriculture Development Team made up of both military and civilian specialists in veterinary medicine, agronomy, hydrology, soil science and pest management. Each team helps facilitate agricultural reconstruction and development in Afghanistan. Team five is expected to be deployed in June.

Also attending the game were the children of Air Guard Senior Master Sgt. Jerry Blankenship, of St. Peters, who is in Afghanistan serving as a munitions expert with the fourth agriculture team.

"My dad has been to Iraq twice and this is his second tour in Afghanistan," said Caleb Blankenship, 25. "It's kind of scary thinking about what's going on over there but dad loves what he's doing and we're kind of used to him being gone for six months or more at a time."

A self-proclaimed "huge Blues fan," Blankenship said the game served as a pleasant diversion from thoughts about his father.

"This is very cool and I thank Erik Johnson for this," he said. "I've been a Blues fan for a long time."

"This is pretty sweet," added Staff Sgt. Daniel Conley, of Columbia, Mo., a medic with the 131st Bomb Wing, who was attending his first NHL game. "I wasn't expecting anything like this."

After eight years in the Air National Guard, Conley was looking for his first deployment opportunity and volunteered for the medical component of the agriculture team.

"I'm really excited about this deployment," he said. "I tried to get on other deployments but none of them panned out."

Also approaching his first deployment is Master Sgt. James Bradley, of Warrensburg, who will serve as a security force protection squad leader.

"Our main job is to follow the agriculture team and keep them alive," Bradley said. "This will be especially daunting for me because I'm an electronics technician with the Air Guard so I have to switch gears to an Army frame of mind. We will undergo some specialized training but the learning curve will be pretty steep for us Air Guard guys."

Bradley believes his service in Afghanistan will be the "highlight" of his military career.

"I'm not diminishing what I do every day, but it's a lot different than strapping on the combat gear and putting your boots on the ground in-country," he said.

In addition to the luxury accommodations, the Guardsmen were treated to a 3-2 Blues victory.