BREWER, Maine — Members of the Maine Army National Guard unit who spent Christmas with their families after Stephen and Tabitha King paid for their bus ride home left Friday morning in a snowstorm for Indiana. There, they will continue training before heading to Afghanistan later this month.
The bus left the Brewer Armory about 9:45 a.m., slightly ahead of schedule, for South Portland, where it will pick up other members of Bravo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry. The group arrived in Maine on Dec. 23 after a 15-hour bus ride from Camp Atterbury, Ind.
Friday morning’s send-off was private, unlike the event on Dec. 7 at the University of Maine’s Collins Center for the Arts. Gov. John Baldacci attended both events, but Guard officials Friday did not allow local news media inside the armory.
Soldiers carried plastic bags from L.L. Bean as they emerged from the building on Elm Street and gave final embraces to loved ones before boarding the bus. Tears and snowflakes mingled on the cheeks of men and women as spouses, sons and daughters silently waved goodbye.
In an impromptu news conference after the bus pulled out of the parking lot, Baldacci said the Kings had donated books for the guardsmen to read, an Old Town bakery had provided doughnuts, and the Freeport-based business had provided lip balm, the bags and other items.
The governor said he has attended every military send-off that has been held in the state since the Iraq war began. Baldacci said it was very important for him to be in Brewer on Friday.
“This is a deployment that’s going into a very difficult and challenging area,” he said. “These are our young men and their families, and in Maine, we’re part of their extended family of support. I wanted to let them know that the governor was there and all the people of Maine are here with them today. I just wanted to be here to let them know that we care about them and that we’re going to look out for their families and their friends.”
Baldacci praised the Kings for donating the money so the soldiers could spend Christmas with their families.
“They’re great people,” he said. “They’ve always been there for me and the state of Maine. They’re always there when you need them.”
The Guard unit left Maine on Dec. 8 for Indiana. The soldiers had time off around the holidays but didn’t have a way to return home. Operation Community Support, a Bangor-based military assistance nonprofit organization, solicited the Kings for a donation. The rest came from the Guard’s Family Assistance Center.
The governor said that being home for the holiday appeared to have been important for the families he spoke with inside the Brewer Armory.
“They tell me that everybody kind of bent the rules just a little so they could stay extra long,” Baldacci said. “I think that’s fantastic because it’s so important while they’re over there to have these memories and connections and these emotions.
“You can see the tears running down their faces, but at the same time they’ve had a lot of good time together this holiday season, and it meant a lot to them,” he said. “It was just tremendous that that was able to happen.”
By early 2010, the Maine Army National Guard will have deployed about 50 percent of its force overseas to Iraq or Afghanistan, according to reports previously published in the Bangor Daily News. More than 2,300 Maine men and women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Nine have died.