ROCKLAND, Maine — More than 110 Maine National Guard soldiers with Company C 1/126 AVN Regiment, known in Maine as the Black Bear Medevac Unit, gathered Sunday at the Samoset Resort for a belated but heartfelt welcome home ceremony.
Although they have been back home for three months, this was their formal recognition after taking time to reunite with families and get back to their civilian jobs.
Soldiers sat shoulder to shoulder with family members, couples’ arms were draped around each other, and children sat on their laps.
Maine’s entire congressional delegation was there to praise the unit, which includes members from across the state and is based at Bangor International Airport.
“You are nothing short of incredible,” U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, told the soldiers. She said it was a privilege and an honor to welcome them home.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, added, “Well done,” and Democratic Reps. Michael Michaud and Chellie Pingree also expressed the country’s gratitude.
“We are humbled by your accomplishments,” Michaud said.
The citizen soldiers were called heroes, the best of the best and rock stars, and their leader, Maj. Brian Veneziano of Hermon, said they earned every accolade and their deployment was worthy of recognition.
In their nine months of deployment, the Black Bear air ambulance soldiers provided medical rescue over 52,000 square miles in Iraq. They performed more than 1,000 missions and transported 680 patients, including Iraqis, noncombatants, American soldiers and children. They flew 3,971 hours. Not only did they all return safely, but not one member was injured overseas.
The Black Bear soldiers left Maine on April 1, 2008, and the last soldier left Iraq for home on Christmas Day. The men and women arrived at Bangor International Airport on New Year’s Day to a 3 a.m. welcome.
Veneziano said the duty was both challenging and rewarding.
“Most units in Iraq are fighting units. Our job is as a rescue unit, a flying ambulance. We don’t get into the good guy-bad guy stuff,” he said. The unit also ferried medical equipment and supplies where they were needed, which he said was as important a mission as medical evacuation.
“For the last two months, the men and women have been integrating back to work and family,” Veneziano said. But this shift is not without problems, he said.
“Many have found the readjustment much harder the second time around, including myself,” he said. “I can’t explain why. It just seems harder.”
The unit also was deployed to Iraq in 2003 with some of the same members, as well as to Bosnia in 1999 and to New Orleans in 2005 to help with efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
In addressing the unit, Maj. Gen. John Libby, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, acknowledged that readjusting to civilian life can be difficult.
“All of you have been changed while in Iraq,” Libby said. “Some have been changed in a positive fashion, others negatively. Inevitably, you left a piece of yourself there.”
Libby said each soldier had an obligation to their families not to let any difficulties left from their service impede their ability to move forward in their life.
“This state has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to support” for returning troops, he said, and urged affected soldiers to seek help.
Several special awards were made during the ceremony, and every soldier was presented with gifts.
Mark Bragdon of Windham was recognized for 40 years six months of National Guard service. Sunday was his last day in uniform.
Dianne Bowden of Bangor, who runs The Club, the 112th Open Mess, at BIA, was honored for providing everything from snowplowing services to banking assistance for deployed soldiers.
The Lewiston Sun Journal was recognized for providing newspapers and coffee every day the unit was deployed.
In a statement read by Libby, Gov. John Baldacci told the soldiers: “You were never alone while you were over there. All of Maine was with you.”