Perspectives on War: guard unit called to active duty

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(Host) The military buildup for a possible war with Iraq has turned many Vermonters into full-time soldiers. The Rutland area has been the most affected, with one Army Reserve company called into active service for the first time in its 40-year history.

In the second part of series, “Perspectives on War,” VPR’s John Dillon reports that the transition from civilian to military life brings mixed emotions for the soldiers and their families.

(Sound of a forklift moving equipment in a warehouse.)

(Dillon) It’s moving day at the headquarters of C company of the U.S. Army’s 368th Engineering Battalion. The reserve unit is based in a low brick building in Rutland. On a snowy day last week, men and women in camouflage uniforms pack up for their assignment to Fort Drum, New York.

It’s the first time that the Pentagon has activated C company. The 85 soldiers must prepare themselves for a year away from home.

(Danny Pinsonault) “I didn’t think it was question of if, it’s a question of when.”

(Dillon) First Sergeant Danny Pinsonault is the company’s highest ranking non-commissioned officer.

(Pinsonault) “You know eventually you’re going to get called up. But when you get called up, it gets real.”

(Dillon) Pinsonault is 50. He’s short and stocky and he’s trained in the reserves for 26 years. As a civilian, he builds fishing rods for the Orvis Company in Manchester. As a soldier, he says his main job is to bring his men home safely.

C company essentially works as a construction crew for the army. The soldiers build roads and housing and provide other support services. After their training at Fort Drum, the Vermont crew may get shipped to Iraq.

(Pinsonault) “They’re going to be in an area where, if we don’t follow the rules that we’re told to follow and we don’t do the things that we need to do, somebody could get hurt. I do feel I can take care of my soldiers. And that’s pretty much my main job when I go over there, is to make sure they’re all safe. And when we come back, all the crying and tears that were there when we had our closing ceremony, those are all going to be laughter and tears of joy. It’ll be a good time when we get back, and they’ll all get back.”

(Dillon) Hundreds of people turned out a week ago to send off Company C. As Pinsonault says, the ceremony was bittersweet. Rutland Mayor John Cassarino spoke at the send-off. He says the community turned out to show its appreciation.

(Cassarino) “It was very short notice that it was called. There had to be 700, 800 people there. The governor was there. I was there. There was a lot of the families. And I think the thing that was the most touching – when I was walking out I looked under the seats, to see all the Kleenex that people had put under there.”

(Dillon) First Sergeant Danny Pinsonault knows some of that sadness. He sees it in the faces of his men. But mostly, he says, the strain is on the families that stay home. Pinsonault says his 17-year-old daughter accepted his assignment fairly well. The news was harder on his son:

(Pinsonault) “And when he hurts, I hurt. The fact he’s upset about it, I can’t talk right now about it.”

(Dillon) The transition to full-time military service is hard, but he says the company becomes like a second family.

(Pinsonault) “So there’s a lot of things going on everybody’s dealing with it in different ways. But the bottom line, Charlie Company wants to do this. Charlie Company doesn’t want to leave their family behind and when we leave we’re not going to have a void. When Charlie Company leaves, we’re going to be intact and we’re going to be ready to do our job. It’s that family that we leave behind, they’re the ones that have the void. That’s why I say those people are really the heroes. They may not think they are, but they are.”

(Dillon) The Rutland company is part of the Army Reserves, a force made up of civilians who are activated into federal service during times of war or national emergency. The National Guard is under state control, but also can be put under Pentagon command.

Vermont Adjutant General Martha Rainville says about 30 members of the guard now work under federal orders to provide security for the Air Guard and its F-16 fighter jets at the Burlington airport.

(Rainville) “We’re standing by. My feeling is that the Guard is going to be called on this time more for homeland security missions, as opposed to a massive call up from Vermont going to fight any overseas war. We are hoping that there is a peaceful solution. The last thing we ever want to do in uniform is go into conflict. But we’ve all sworn an oath to support and defend the constitution of the U.S. as well as Vermont, and the Guard members will do what they’re asked.”

(Dillon) Back at C company in Rutland, Pinsonault says his job isn’t to question why his country may invade Iraq. He says he absolutely supports the right of those who demonstrate against the war.

(Pinsonault) “I think it’s great. If we weren’t allowed to be able to do stuff like that, then it wouldn’t be worth defending as a nation. I just hope that the people that do protest understand that our job is to follow directions, and for every soldier that’s following directions, there’s a lot of civilians there who have broken hearts or have a lot of things on their mind because of that soldier. If they would be considerate enough to see that part, then they should go out and view their side too, you know.”

(Dillon) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Rutland.

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Audio and transcripts from Perspectives on War are available online.

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