CONCORD — In what’s become a familiar ritual, hundreds of Granite Staters turned out on a crisp fall morning to bid farewell to National Guardsmen heading off to a faraway war zone.
Gray-haired parents and grandparents, spouses holding babies and toddlers, and fellow Guardsmen in camouflage uniforms were among the well-wishers who packed into the Army Aviation Support Facility Saturday morning for a formal departure ceremony honoring the C Company of the 3-238th MEDEVAC.
Over the next year, these soldiers will miss Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, perhaps even funerals.
Judith and John Mason of Nashua were there to support their 34-year-old son, Sgt. John Thomas “J.T.” Mason, a crew chief with the 3-238th. “He knows what he’s doing, he’s confident, and he loves what he’s doing,” his mom said.
She grew up in a military family and married a military man, she said. But she’s always a little nervous when a loved one deploys.
J.T. Mason, who lives in Manchester, said there are a lot of new faces in the unit. It’s the first deployment for a majority of the 70-plus soldiers going to the Middle East, according to the Guard.
But, Mason said, “I think everyone’s ready to go. We’ll do well over there.”
Six years ago, he deployed with the 3-238th to Afghanistan. “The day I left last time, I found out my wife was pregnant,” he recalled.
This deployment feels different, he said — because of 6-year-old Amber and 5-year-old Scott. “It’s a lot harder this time, trying to tell the kids Dad’s going to be away for a little while,” he said.
Pilots, flight paramedics, crew chiefs, mechanics, and flight operations and communication specialists are among those heading to the Middle East in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. The mission is supporting ongoing military actions by U.S. and partner forces against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, according to the Department of Defense.
The MEDEVAC (Aeromedical Evacuation) soldiers will evacuate and provide care en route for U.S. and Allied forces, from the point of injury on the battlefield to a higher level of care, using UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters specially equipped with litters and life support systems.
Maj. Giovanni Gensale, the unit’s commander, praised the Guardsmen’s history of service, both overseas and here at home. And he thanked their “truly courageous” family members for their support.
“I ask you to remember that you provide both the foundation and the strength that will help those who stand here today, as guardians of freedom and the American way of life,” he told them. “God bless, and thank you for what you do.”
Here on the homefront, members of the 3-238th frequently assist state agencies with search and rescue, firefighting and counter-drug operations, officials said.
Maj. Gen. David Mikolaities, adjutant general of the New Hampshire National Guard, praised the unit’s history of service, including clearing debris in the southwestern part of the state during floods in 2005, and ongoing search and rescue missions with the Fish and Game Department. Since 2002, the unit has also deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Guatemala on military and humanitarian missions.
The Guardsmen trained last summer for the upcoming mission with other units from around the country, Brig. Gen. Shawn O’Brien noted. “Now it’s time to execute,” he said.
Many of the soldiers heading overseas have seen multiple deployments, both on active duty and with the Guard. Mikolaities asked CW5 Daniel Jacques, who is deploying for the sixth time, to stand up and be recognized. “Thank you for your service,” the general said, and the audience applauded heartily.
Mikolaities offered some advice to the deploying Guardsmen: “Listen to your leaders. And write, Skype and email your family and friends.”
“God bless. Godspeed. Live free or die,” he concluded.
Anita Nicoll was there Saturday for her 25-year-old grandson, Spc. Justin Dixon; he and his little brother, Kaleb, live with her in Hudson.
She’s apprehensive about the coming deployment, his first, Nicoll said. “You worry,” she said. “I’m just wondering if he’s going to be safe, if he’s going to come back.”
A couple of weeks ago, Dixon came home with his will, all filled out. “That put a little reality in it,” she said. “It gave me chills when he handed it to me.”
Gov. Chris Sununu called the Guardsmen “heroes,” and told the families the state is standing by to help them in whatever they need while their loved ones are deployed.
The entire Desjardins family came from Exeter to support 21-year-old Bryson Desjardins, a crew chief and mechanic with the 3-238th. Aaron Desjardins said this is something his older brother has always wanted to do. “I’m proud he made it,” he said.
He’s also nervous, he admitted. “It’ll be alright,” he said. “I hope.”
Bryson’s girlfriend, Grace Young, said she feels a whole range of emotions as his departure nears: “Sad. Scared. Nervous.”
But she said, “I’m also excited for him. This is a new experience.”
A young mother sat quietly nursing her baby as Saturday’s ceremony concluded with the familiar strains of the “Army Song” (“and the Army goes rolling along…”).
Then young and old alike gravitated to the Black Hawk helicopter on the far side of the facility, posing for family photos that will likely become cherished mementos in the long year ahead.