A reporter from Al Jazeera English asked America's top military leader a question: Vermonters largely support the troops fighting in Afghanistan but many oppose the war itself. How long can wars be successfully conducted when so many people have such doubts about it?
"I certainly wouldn't put a number on it," Mullen told reporters at a Vermont National Guard send-off ceremony Friday morning. "As a Vietnam veteran myself, I'm very much aware of what happens when the people of America don't support the men and women in uniform. ...What I've seen throughout this country is that the people of America strongly support those who serve and those who sacrifice."
Mullen, the nation's highest ranking military leader, came to the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds in Essex Junction Friday morning, to send off the next wave of Vermont National Guard troops deploying to Afghanistan.
Another 200 Guard soldiers departed Friday on the first leg of a weeks-long journey that will end somewhere in Afghanistan. What began as a training and mentoring mission has evolved into one that, as part of President Obama's troop surge, will likely put Vermont soldiers into active combat situations.
The 1,500 Vermont Guard soldiers being activated in the state's largest deployment since World War II haven't been told where in Afghanistan they are going, or precisely what the mission will be.
Mullen praised the families who will stay behind — many of whom looked on through red, swollen eyes — and acknowledged the heavy toll the protracted war on terror has taken on families.
"They've been pushed and they've been stretched and we know that," Mullen told reporters. "The readiness of families to sustain this has become an integral part of the readiness of our military, not just here but very broadly."
The Guard soldiers deployed Friday were part of the 86th IBCT (Mountain). Its members ranged from seasoned soldiers on their second deployments to the Middle East, to fresh-faced 18- and 19-year-olds who bade family members sad, drawn-out goodbyes.
19-year-old Spc. Rebecca Ulrich (pictured in army fatigues) of Hardwick was facing her first deployment overseas, where she'll provide security for a Guard officer. Ulrich was surrounded by family Friday morning, and says she tucked a family photo into her Kevlar helmet to keep them close while she's gone.
"I got this ring — my cousin gave it to me and told me I could have half her heart when I'm gone," said Ulrich, showing the ring 10-year-old Sierra Crouse gave her. "It's hard to leave my family, but it's what I trained for. It's my job."
Staff Sgt. Jeremy Longto, a 29-year-old who served in Ramadi, Iraq as part of the Vermont Guard's Task Force Saber, said he feels more confident heading into his second deployment. Last time he shipped off, in 2003, Longto had a girlfriend — which made leaving really tough. Now he's single, which he said makes leaving "a lot easier." He will miss mud-bogging he says, and the freedom to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. "I belong to Uncle Sam now," Longto said.
Longto's family threw him a big party last weekend, and stuck the photos from it into an album Longto's taking to Afghanistan. There, he'll lead a squad of eight soldiers in whatever missions are assigned to him.
The deployment is scheduled for 12 months, but Longto (pictured on the left, with friend Staff Sgt. Jesse Ellsworth of Corinth) commented: "We'll see if they stick to it."