BANGOR, Maine — When leaders of the Bangor-based 126th Army National Guard medevac unit — known as the “Black Bears” — heard that they were heading into harm’s way for the second time in recent years, they asked members who would like to stay home and skip the deployment.
“I did not get any volunteers,” unit commander Maj. Mark Stevens said this week. “It made it tough to choose” who would stay home.
A sendoff ceremony for the 102 deploying citizen soldiers was held Friday at the University of Maine’s Collins Center for the Arts. Gov. Paul LePage; Maj. Gen. John “Bill” Libby, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard; U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud; Paul Ferguson, University of Maine president; and Stevens all spoke.
A majority of the weekend warriors already have been overseas — many went with Charlie Company to Iraq in 2008 — and all are highly trained to support combat medical evacuations.
“My unit has the best job in the Army,” Stevens said. “Working to ensure our county’s soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and civilian contractors receive the fastest and highest level of medical care makes it all worthwhile.”
Using Blackhawk helicopters, the unit picked up and treated more than 650 patients — including some military working dogs — with injuries that ranged from extreme combat trauma to broken fingers during their last deployment, he said.
“Charlie Company — all of Maine thanks you for your service,” LePage said, calling the farewell ceremony bittersweet. “Hurry home and Godspeed to you.”
The governor went on to thank the soldiers’ families and friends for their support and said if they have any problems while their loved ones are away, they should “just call.”
Michaud told the men and women in uniform that their dedication and service “has made us proud” and went on to say services for returning veterans, including the G.I. Bill and military pensions, are things he will work to improve as a ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
Libby said the Maine medevac unit — the pilots, crew chiefs, medics, aircraft mechanics, operations and communications managers and refuelers — will have a crucial role with 15,000 other soldiers in Kuwait that will make up a reaction force that is moving over from Iraq.
Libby also asked those left behind to call him if they have problems.
“I’m the only Libby in the book in Sidney,” the adjutant general said.
The Maine soldiers will go to Fort Hood, Texas, for training before departing for Kuwait.
“At this point we have an idea where we will be going but nothing has been confirmed,” Stevens said earlier this week. “We will know for sure when we prepare to leave Fort Hood after training.”
Not all of the soldiers who are departing with the 126th are originally from the unit. Some have volunteered from other units since they got word in April 2010 that they would be deployed.
Sgt. Michael Johnson of Richmond is one of those volunteers.
Johnson is a former member of the 1136th Transportation Company, which was scheduled to deploy a few years ago but its orders were canceled. He decided to transfer so he could serve overseas.
“I volunteered to go,” he said, adding that when his first deployment was canceled, he was devastated.
“You get all amped up for a year and a half and they pull the plug on you,” he said. “It was akin to making the football team but never playing.”
His girlfriend of a year, Lucy Oyster of Wiscasset, said having him leave is going to be hard.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” she said, holding her young son.
Chief Warrant Officer Tom Driscoll is one of the soldiers who didn’t make the deployment list. He said he’s working on a big project with the Department of Defense and leaving would have been a big inconvenience but he still got in line when the call for volunteers was made.
“They took two of the four” pilots in his queue, said Driscoll, who already has served twice in Iraq.
He said he’s now torn about being left behind.
“Your friends are going and … you want to go with your friends,” Driscoll said.
Stevens, who was the last to speak, thanked family members and loved ones who must wait a year for the citizen soldiers’ return.
“It’s the wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers — all the people left behind … who are the heroes,” the commander said, with his wife and two children in the audience.