BENNINGTON — Conversations among deploying members of the Vermont National Guard and family members grew perceptibly more animated as the 6 p.m. departure hour loomed Monday night.
With five minutes to go, Sgt. First Class Justin Laramie, of Castleton, standing on a stair landing at the Bennington Armory building, shouted, “All right — load up!”
About 40 members of Bravo Troop (Black Jack) of the 1st Squadron, 172nd Calvary Mountain Regiment headed for vans, trucks and other vehicles, amid last-minute hugs and words from loved ones.
They are headed for a year-long deployment to the Republic of Kosovo, where they will serve with a NATO peacekeeping force.
The soldiers were escorted by a dozen police vehicles from around the county, where most of the Bennington-based Guard unit live. Others are from other areas of Vermont, as well as nearby New York and Massachusetts.
After circling the block from behind the Armory building to South Street, the vehicles headed north through the Four Corners. They were cheered on by several hundred waving residents standing along the route — including during planned pauses at the Vermont Veterans’ Home and other locations along the highway toward northern Vermont.
The soldiers were to stop first at the Camp Ethan Allen training center in Jericho before leaving Vermont on Tuesday.
Before leaving the Armory, the soldiers seemed upbeat about the mission, which is to perform reconnaissance, or scouting work, including along boundary or border areas in the former war zone.
“It’s always a little gut-wrenching, and it’s tough to say goodbye to families, but now we are ready to go, and we are ready to move on to the next chapter,” said Capt. Erik Lahr, after speaking to the assembled troops inside the Armory.
“It’s going to be exciting to go, but it’s a little tough to leave,” said First Lt. Thomas Meyer, of Jeffersonville. “We are deploying with an incredible unit with some incredible leaders, so it will be a really good opportunity to perfect our trade and to get to do a good deed.”
Staff Sgt. Shane Wooddell, of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., said the deployment will be his third — following prior deployments to Afghanistan in 2009 and to Japan in 2010.
Asked how the Guard members prepare for a deployment, Wooddell said, “I know for a lot of the younger guys it’s really difficult at first. You go through a lot of emotions, leaving your family, leaving your loved ones. But we all understand the mission; we understand the reason we do what we do, and it’s being a part of something bigger than yourself. That makes it all worth it.”
For Sgt. Laramie, this will be his fourth deployment, following two deployments to Iraq and one to Asia.
But despite that experience, “it’s tough,” he said. “Nobody ever wants to leave their family. Nobody ever wants to leave their warm bed or their comfy house.”
The unit will be staying in barracks, as opposed to camping in tents, he said, which is fortunate given the weather in the Balkans.
“The weather is a lot like here,” Laramie said.
NATO has maintained a peacekeeping force in Kosovo since the end of a war involving nearby Serbia in 1999.
State Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, 2-2, who spearheaded planning for the troop sendoff event, said as they were about to leave the Armory that she was still busy Monday wrapping up final details.
“It was all morning spent with everyone, you know the law enforcement, the fire departments, the news channels up north and in Albany (N.Y.) … And all day I’ve had people call and say, ‘Mary, we’ll be there.’”
She said the threat of rain was a concern all day as well, under mostly cloudy skies. But the rain held off.
Prior to the departure, Morrissey addressed the troops in the Armory, her voice at times halting with emotion.
“History shows that our armed forces have played a vital role in helping to protect and preserve peace both here at home and around the world,” she said, “serving always with great distinction and honor wherever needed.”
Morrissey said the unit members are “the current standard bearers of an illustrious heritage” and “your upcoming service will add a new chapter to that history and record.”
She also encouraged the soldiers’ families to contact support groups in the state for assistance if needed during the coming year.
The police cruisers and other vehicles made their way to the Vermont Veterans’ Home off North Street, where they circled the home to allow residents and staff members a chance to show support.
Lynn Sweet, of the Mount Anthony Union High School music department, sang “America the Beautiful” as the motorcade made a brief stop on the Veterans’ Home grounds. Then, the vehicles continued out to the highway, passing under a flag draped between ladder trucks of the Manchester and Bennington fire departments.
Veterans groups and auxiliaries and local service clubs were also among those showing support along the route, including members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1332, American Legion Post 13, as well as local Rotary and Lions clubs, the Eagles, the Elks and other organizations.
Also along North Street, veterans’ motorcycle groups saluted the deploying soldiers and fell in behind the motorcade, as did several local rescue squad vehicles.
And the motorcade passed about two dozen fire trucks with lights flashing parked along North Street, with firefighters from several area departments in dress uniforms standing near the vehicles to salute the troops.
The Bennington-based unit is among three Vermont Guard units deploying in May that represent the last of 950 soldiers to be deployed from Vermont during 2021 to sites in Africa and Europe.