130 Vermont Guard soldiers deployed to Middle East

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(Host) Hundreds family, friends and well-wishers turned out in Saint Albans on Thursday to say an emotional farewell to a group of Vermont Army National Guard members who are heading overseas to serve in the war in Iraq.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Orders) “Company attention! Company attention!”

(Zind) Adjutant General Martha Rainville reminded the 130 men who stood facing her about one of their home state’s most enduring traditions – town meeting. And she told them they would be helping people on the other side of the world to establish a similar tradition.

(Rainville) “You’re going into a region at risk. A region that needs your help because you’re offering, through the peace and stability you’ll bring the hope of democracy to millions of people.”

(Zind) And Rainville reminded the men that they still have duties at home.

(Rainville) “Please be sure to e-mail your mothers.”

(Zind) The men shipped out in two companies – one bound for Camp Shelby in Mississippi, the other for Fort Bliss, Texas.

After about six weeks of training, they’ll be sent to Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Their mission is generally described as providing security, but they won’t know the details until they’re trained. The men are expected to be gone for 18 months.

Danielle Minckler of Sheldon says what bothers her most is the length of time her husband Randy will be away from her and their children.

(Minckler) “He’ll miss a lot of stuff. He’ll miss hockey games. He’s miss birthdays.”

(Zind) There was ceremony and there were speeches by Vermont’s governor and congressional delegation. And before they boarded buses to the airport there were a few more minutes to say goodbye.

Tammy Underwood stood next to her husband, Staff Sergeant Peter Underwood. The couple is expecting a baby this spring.

(Tammy Underwood) “I’m really hoping they send him home in May on some leave so he can be there. It will kind of break things up for him and it will certainly make it easier for me.”

(Zind) Peter Underwood says the deployment is a life-changing experience and a difficult one to prepare for.

(Peter Underwood) “Some days are better than others. It’s a hard thing to know that you’re going to be gone from your family for that long a period of time, but that’s why we put the uniform on. To make our country safe.”

(Zind) There’s a scene that’s repeated over and over around the crowded room. A Vermont National Guard member dressed in fatigues stands in a circle of loved ones. Photos are taken, tears are shed. Children cling, and wives exchange a few more words with husbands they won’t see for a year and a half.

If guardsmen like 48-year old Randy Minckler wear brave faces, their emotions are just below the surface.

(Randy Minckler) “My wife gave me this new wedding band. She engraved the inside of it. It says, ‘To my soul mate. Love, Danielle.'”

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Saint Albans.

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