Vermont Guard deploys 600 soldiers to Middle East

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(Host) It was an emotional farewell on Friday for 600 Vermont soldiers who are on their way to the Middle East. The call-up for the Vermont National Guard is the largest since World War II. At the send-off ceremony, state officials honored the soldiers and their families for their service.

VPR’s John Dillon was in Northfield.

(Dillon) In a crowded and field house at Norwich University, hundreds of soldiers and families try to find time for quiet goodbyes. Diaper bags and Army duffel bags are carried together as proud fathers hold their babies and young men and women in camouflage pose for the cameras.

Sergeant Laurie Davies of Highgate Center huddled close to her sisters and mother. Davies has been in the Guard for 16 years. This assignment to the Middle East is her first overseas deployment. She says the last few days have been a blur.

(Davies) “Spending time with the family, getting things ready, making sure the house is in order.”

(Dillon) Davies’ sister, Duana Lock of Swanton, says the upcoming holidays will be hard.

(Lock) “Thanksgiving won’t be the same because we always have it at her house. She makes the stuffing, nobody makes it like she does. And we have our Friday nights, we always go out, that’s just the girls’ night. That’s going to be greatly missed.”

(Dillon) Davies comes from a military family. Her father was in the Guard and served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

The Guard has a different mix these days. Sixty of the 600 who left Friday are women. The average age is 35; grandparents mingle with the 20-year-olds.

Martha Halnon of Bristol came to say goodbye to her 22-year old son, Seth Nelson of Burlington. The family has stayed close together the last few days.

(Halnon) “We went to a couple of football games. We went to his brother’s champion football game. We went to a Patriots game in Boston. So that was special and we had a big going away party on Saturday.”

(Dillon) Sergeant Louis Niggel of Williston just returned from the Middle East. He has some simple advice for the soldiers and for their loved ones left behind:

(Niggel) “Once you’ve said good-byes you can start to focus on the job and then it gets a little easier after that. Take it one day at a time. Don’t look at it as 18 months, look at it a, ‘Let’s get through today and let’s get through tomorrow.'”

(Dillon) Governor Jim Douglas and other dignitaries at the ceremony spoke of the hardship for the families. Adjutant General Martha Rainville reminded the men and women that they are taking part in a ritual that is older than the country.

(Rainville) “I know how you’ve trained. I know your commitment to each other – not only to the country, but to each other. And I know the strength of your character. And when you go and you serve, you take the strength of your character. You take the values of the Green Mountain Boys with you.”

(Dillon) As cannons fired and the band played the Army song, hundreds of people wept and waved good-bye. The 600 members of the 2nd Battalion, 172 Armor Regiment lined up in rows and marched out into the warm November sun. A row of white buses took them to the airport for a flight to Mississippi. They’ll train there for about six weeks, before heading out to the Middle East.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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