Thousands pack arena for farewell to soldiers

September 12, 2010

MANCHESTER - On the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that launched America into two wars, New Hampshire yesterday bid an emotional farewell to more than 700 Army National Guardsmen leaving soon to help complete the mission.

In the year they'll be gone, some will miss seeing babies born, others their kids' graduations. They'll be away for Christmas, birthdays, family weddings, perhaps funerals.

But after yesterday, members of the 197th Fires Brigade surely know they carry the thoughts and prayers of Granite Staters with them, all the way to the far-off, foreign desert.

"You are our heroes, all of you," Gov. John Lynch told them at a departure ceremony held in Verizon Wireless Arena.

A crowd estimated at nearly 8,000 went wild when Lt. Col. Daniel Wilson, executive officer of the 197th, gave the order: "Bring in your soldiers."

And in they came. It took nearly 20 minutes to get them all in their seats, but the applause and cheers of support continued unabated.

The sight of 700 soldiers getting ready to ship off to war is something the state hasn't seen since World War II. And the sense of history wasn't lost on those inside the arena.

"The soldiers of World War II have been called the greatest generation, a worthy description for sure," said Brig. Gen. Craig Bennett, commander of the N.H. Army National Guard. "But after nine years of war, this generation of all-volunteer soldiers has earned a place in history no less important."

197th Fires Brigade's Sgt. John Morrison holds up a banner as he and his fellow soliders exit Verizon Wireless Arena after the Brigade's departure ceremony Saturday afternoon. (MARK BOLTON)

Maj. Gen. William Reddel III said the history of the New Hampshire militia goes back to 1623, when the first citizen-soldiers "answered the call of New Hampshire and country."

"When disaster strikes New Hampshire, we mobilize. When our nation is threatened, we respond," Reddel said.

"When you talk to our warriors, they will tell you that their ultimate hope is that their fight will be the last," he said. "They have taken up the cause so their children and their grandchildren don't have to."

The Guardsmen will head first to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, where they'll be joined by soldiers from West Virginia, Michigan and Rhode Island.

After two more months of intensive training, they'll ship out to Kuwait, where the brigade will support convoys and security missions crossing into Iraq, as well as contribute to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

It seemed like the entire extended Westgate family was on hand to send off both Sgt. Brandon Westgate and his son, Pfc. Jordan Westgate. "It's not going to be easy, but I'm proud of them," said Sgt. Westgate's wife, Dee.

Pfc. Kendall Wright of Portsmouth, a flight medic with the Guard's 249th Aviation Division, was there to see off her boyfriend, Staff Sgt. Christopher Taylor. "I think it's a lot easier to be the one leaving than the one staying behind," she said.

"It's sad, it's scary. It's a little nerve-wracking. You can only hope somebody comes back the way they left."

Cindy Kelly of Exeter was there for two sons -- "a double whammy," she admitted. It's the second deployment for Geoffrey, her older son, the first for his brother, Tommy. "You just kind of take it one day at a time," she said.

Denika and George Jones of Salem were sending off their 22-year-old son, George; sitting with them was George's new wife, Dani. Here's how Denika Jones is trying to look at it: "Every day that he's gone will be a day closer to when he comes home."

The choice of yesterday's date was logistical, not symbolic, Guard officials said. Still, the import of the day was never far from mind.

All four members of the congressional delegation gave brief speeches of thanks and support, and all mentioned the terrorist attacks.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who was governor in 2001, recalled that within hours of the attacks, the Guard responded, securing armories, protecting the airport and refueling the fighter jets patrolling American airspace.

And she said, "Since 9/11, we have leaned heavily on you. ... This has been especially true for those who have been deployed multiple times in support of the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan."

U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said the country has avoided another attack in the years since. "That has not been luck, it has not been chance," he said. "It is because of the service of these men and women, and hundreds of thousands like them."

U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., said America since its founding has depended on those brave enough to serve. "And standing here today, I once again see America's best."

A former military spouse, Shea-Porter urged the families of the deploying troops to hold each other up through the next year. "And until you all return, I will keep you in my thoughts, my prayers and in my heart," she said.

On Sept. 11, said U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., "Those who attacked us sought to undermine our freedom, take away our liberty and make us afraid."

But to them, he said, "Take a look at New Hampshire. Take a look at these brave men and women serving their country."

"That's your answer. We are not afraid. We are Americans. You will never take our freedom; you will never take our liberty."

After the ceremony, members of the Pease Greeters stood at attention until every last soldier had left the arena. And as they poured outside into a bright September afternoon, the Guardsmen were greeted by the sight of a large American flag hoisted aloft by ladder trucks from Manchester Fire Department and the New Hampshire Fire Academy.

Sgt. Charles Allison of Nashua, on his third deployment, said he was "overwhelmed" by the outpouring of support.

So was Sgt. Nicholas Labrecque of Berlin, 22. "It makes everything worth it," he said.

Sgt. Doreen Sears of Gilford said she didn't expect such a "phenomenal" turnout. "Even people that don't have family going, they took the time to come here," she said. "That means a lot to us."

Col. Peter Corey, commander of the 197th Fires Brigade, who is on his third deployment, told his soldiers he knows the challenges their families are facing. "I know that many tears will be shed as loved ones and soldiers say their final good-byes."

But he said, "I ask that you cry only half of those tears, and save the rest for tears of joy when we return."

The 197th Fires Brigade encompasses five units: the HHB 197th Fires Brigade (headquarters); 3-197th Fires Battalion (field artillery); 372nd Signal Co. (communications); 3643rd Brigade Support Battalion (logistics and medical); and 744th Forward Support Co. (logistics and security). The term "fires" comes from its field artillery history, according to Capt. Robert Burnham, the Guard's state public affairs officer.

By:  Shawne K. Wickham
Source: Union Leader