Vermont National Guard soldier Matt Doyon (pictured at right, below) packed his Army duffel bag with an Xbox and the video game NHL '10 for his deployment to Afghanistan. Fellow soldier Dan Baillargeon (pictured at left) packed an ultrasound picture of his unborn child, due in seven months.
Both are 23 years old, both are privates first-class in the Guard's 1-172nd Cavalry Squadron. And for both young men, it's their first overseas deployment — a mission they admit to being "a little nervous" about.
Doyon and Baillargeon were among the 350 Vermont National Guard soldiers who shipped off for Afghanistan Friday morning following a send-off ceremony at UVM's Patrick Gymnasium. They first go to Camp Atterbury in Indiana for training, then home for the holidays, then to Afghanistan for a one-year tour of duty.
The Vermont Guard is knee-deep in its largest troop deployment since World War II, sending 1500 soldiers to Afghanistan over the next several weeks. Friday's send-off was for the second wave of soldiers to go, and came less than two weeks after President Obama announced an escalation of 30,000 U.S. troops to the region.
Doyon, who says he follows politics, highly doubts the U.S. will begin pulling troops out in 18 months. He guesses it'll be closer to two to four years before the Afghan security forces are deemed ready to take over.
"If they still can't stand up on one leg, there's no way it'll happen" in 18 months, Doyon suggests.
The soldiers lined up in formation as a slew of Army and political leaders bade them farewell.
Thanks to "Operation Holiday Homecoming," $175,000 was raised to ensure some 700 National Guard soldiers can get bussed home for the holidays — for eight days — before going overseas. Below, a soldier checks out a display of letters from supporters of the Operation.
There were tearful hugs goodbye.
Maj. Gen. Michael Dubie, commander of the Vermont Guard, told the soldiers: "You are going at a critical time" and have the backing of "every citizen in the State of Vermont."
Gov. Jim Douglas told the troops he was proud.
Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, the general's brother, sat on stage but didn't speak at the mic.
Barbara Purinton (at right below) and Angela Wells staffed the information table for the Guard's Family Readiness Support Assistance program, handing out literature on how families and spouses can prepare for, and survive, long overseas deployments. Purinton is the husband of National Guard Chaplain Charlie Purinton and has a daughter deploying to Afghanistan next month with her father. Wells' husband was deploying this morning.
The troops looked ready. Said 47-year-old Sgt. Robert A. Bedard of Swanton, who previously served in Ramadi, Iraq: "It's a job."