BANGOR, Maine — The 81 Maine Army National Guard soldiers with the 286th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion were honored for their service during a Freedom Salute held Saturday at Bangor High School.
Nearly half of their number have been deployed at least twice, after returning in January from a yearlong tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Sgt. Jody Pelletier of Fort Kent is one of those soldiers. She and her brothers-in-arms, along with family members, employers and groups that supported the deployed soldiers from home, received thanks and appreciation at Saturday’s event from Guard and government leaders.
“We left [Fort Kent] at 5 in the morning” to make it to Bangor in time for the ceremony, said Peggy Pelletier, who along with her husband, Edmond, a 30-year National Guard veteran, flanked her daughter after the ceremony ended.
Sgt. Pelletier, who served her first one-year tour in Afghanistan during 2006-07, said she really missed “Mom’s good cooking” while she was overseas.
Others in the group said the support from home was a lifeline they would not have wanted to live without.
“My family did a lot to help me pull through,” said Spc. Josh Sennett of Linneus. “They kept my mind on task to help me do what I needed to do.”
Sennett’s parents, Bud and Bev Sennett, and his 9-year-old son, Austin Sennett, along with his sister, brother-in-law, aunts and three nieces or nephews were at the ceremony to support him.
“They’re the heroes,” Spc. Sennett said.
Five of the 81 soldiers have served three tours, and two others who returned with the battalion in January were quickly reassigned to other units that soon will be deployed.
While serving in the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar, the 286th coordinated logistics to support more than 8,000 soldiers in their combat operations against al-Qaida and Taliban forces.
Lt. Col. Diane Dunn, the “Dirigo taskforce” battalion commander, said soldiers in her unit should be very proud of their work.
“In true Maine fashion, they supported every soldier, every sailor, every airman and Marine,” she said. “I’m extremely proud of the way the 286th represented the state of Maine.”
Dunn, of Glenburn, is the first woman to serve as a commanding officer of a Maine Army National Guard unit in Iraq or Afghanistan. She said the support she got from her soldiers “made the battalion the greatest battalion in southern Afghanistan and here at home.”
“Thank you for taking care of me,” she said.
After thanking the family members of her soldiers, she ended her time at the podium by hooting “Dirigo,” which prompted a thundering echo from the men and women in the crowd who served under her.
Gov. John Baldacci, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, and representatives from Maine’s members of Congress sat on the stage during the honor ceremony.
Both Baldacci and Pingree also attended the 286th sendoff 16 months ago.
“It seems like just yesterday when we were here for your deployment,” Baldacci said, adding later that “you’ve made all of us in the state of Maine proud.”
“We’re happy and relieved that you’re safe and sound,” Pingree said.
Pingree is working on legislation to ensure soldiers are provided with services and resources once they get out of the military and are educated about those services.
Maj. Gen. John “Bill” Libby, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, said it is important that soldiers returning from war zones be aware that war takes its toll on people and that there are resources available to help.
Some soldiers, including Libby himself when he returned from Vietnam in 1969, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“PTSD carries such a negative connotation, but in fact it’s an anxiety disorder,” he said. “It’s caused very simply by being put in a situation where you are at risk” or by witnessing dangerous situations.
“It manifests itself in a lot of ways,” Libby said, such as inability to sleep, distraction, dampened emotions, guilt “for returning to something far less important” and lack of interest in things once loved.
“All that’s normal,” he said. “What is important is to talk about your experiences.”
A number of local people and organizations that stood in support of the soldiers while they were overseas were honored during the presentation, including Operation Community Support, American Legion posts, Veterans of Foreign Wars groups, Girl Scouts of Maine and other individuals.
Orono resident Terry Patton, who is about 80 years old, was named the unit’s “Maine Military Angel.”
The Maine National Guard has sent more than 2,300 men and women to Iraq and Afghanistan, and eight have died, Capt. Shanon Cotta said.
“We have two units currently deployed,” he said.
The 172nd Mountain Infantry Company, based in Brewer, has 150 soldiers in Afghanistan with the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team out of Vermont, and 170 soldiers in the 1136th Transportation Company out of Sanford, Bangor and Calais are in training at Fort Hood, Texas, for their coming deployment. The 1136th is scheduled to head overseas in the next couple of weeks, Cotta said.
“Pray for those who are getting ready to deploy and those serving in harm’s way,” Chaplain and Col. Valmore Vigue said to end the presentation.
For military parents and families, seeing their loved ones return safely is a relief.
“I sleep better at night now that she’s home,” Peggy Pelletier said.
Mom’s good cooking was not the only thing her daughter got when she returned stateside. After devouring her mom’s cabbage rolls and pigs-in-a-blanket, Sgt. Pelletier’s boyfriend, Staff Sgt. Jesse Cote of Caribou, who also just returned with her unit, “popped the question” and placed a diamond ring on her left hand.
“The night we got back he said, ‘I have a surprise for you’ and got down on one knee,” she recalled.
Cote, being a jokester, presented Pelletier with a ceremonial coin from their unit. Her heart sank.
“He tricked me,” she said. “I thought he was proposing.”
The next night Cote made good and presented her with an engagement ring in proper style.
“I thought he was joking again, and I said, ‘Are you serious?’” Pelletier said. Afterward, “I stood there in shock for a while.”