First group of Vermont Guard soldiers lands in Mississippi

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(Host) The first group of the more than 400 Vermont guard members stationed in Iraq has returned to the U.S.

The soldiers are members of Task Force Saber which was deployed early last year.

They touched down over the weekend in Mississippi, and VPR’s Steve Zind was there.

(Plane sounds)

(Zind) The plane that landed late Saturday afternoon in Gulfport, Mississippi had a colorful palm tree painted on the tail. It looked like it could be full of vacationers.

(Sounds of soldiers coming down gangway, being welcomed by guard officials)

(Zind) But the several hundred men who disembarked wore desert fatigues and carried rifles.

A group of about fifty Vermont guardsmen was among a larger contingent of Pennsylvania National Guard aboard the plane. The rest of the Vermont troops will arrive in the coming days.

As they walked from the plane, the men moved along a line of guard officials waiting on the tarmac.

Among the first to welcome them home was Vermont Adjutant General Michael Dubie.

(Sounds of General Dubie welcoming soldiers)

(Zind) After days of intense activity in Iraq preparing for their departure, followed by a helicopter ride to Kuwait and then a 12-hour flight to Gulfport, there was more exhaustion than joy on the soldier’s faces, but like Andrew Hunt of Bennington, they were happy the long deployment was nearly over.

(Hunt) “It feels really good to be back here, that’s for sure. The greeting when we came off the plane was great, everybody shaking our hands, saying congratulations, welcome home’ – it was a really nice feeling.”

(Zind) The real celebration would come later in the week in Vermont. In the meantime there was still official business to tend to.

(Soldier) “All right, everybody listen up. I hope you all can understand my Tennessee accent. After you get your weapon turned in, do not get on the bus “

(Zind) The soldiers gathered in a nearby hanger where they lined up and relinquished the weapons they’d kept at their sides for the past year. They stood in small groups talking quietly.

A few used cell phones to call home as they waited to board buses that would take them an hour north to Camp Shelby.

(Sounds of the barracks)

(Zind) On the following day, Sunday, the soldiers’ spirits were revived.

The Vermonters occupied two long cinderblock barracks at Camp Shelby. Boots and combat fatigues were replaced by shorts and flip flops – attire better suited to the steamy Mississippi weather. Soldiers sat on bunks talking and listening to music. On this one day no one was asking anything of them. Some were enjoying the moment. Others, like Craig Levesque, who teaches in Colchester were making plans.

(Levesque) “I’m going to take time off. I’m going to go home, take a trip to California, spend some time with my family and then after than my wife and I are going to take a little bed and breakfast trip.”

(Zind) When Adjutant General Dubie drops in to one of the barracks, a group of men gather around him to let off some steam about their experiences and tell him what they think the Guard should learn from their deployment in Iraq.

(Soldiers) “Their NCOs were just as lost as we were when we first got there…”

“They’re making life and death decisions right then and there “

(Zind) Dubie listens for a long time, taking notes and urging the men to write down their own thoughts.

(Dubie) “Do it for the state of Vermont. Do it for saving someone’s life five years from now. Just write down some of the stuff. You know, here’s my little list.’ But this is nothing compared to what’s in your brains.”

(Zind) As Vermont’s new Adjutant General this is his first experience greeting soldiers returning from Iraq.

Their return means nearly all of the Vermont guard members who served in Iraq on their way back home. Those who remain are in less dangerous areas.

It’s the end of a chapter – the largest overseas call-up in the history of the Vermont Guard. A chapter Dubie is relieved to see end.

(Dubie) “I think relief is an understatement. I think the relief is felt by not just the leadership of the National Guard. It’s felt by the 4,000 members of the Guard who vicariously have felt like they’ve deployed with this group.”

(Zind) More Vermont guard members will arrive in Mississippi later today and on Tuesday. Guard officials say they hope to have all the troops back in Vermont by Father’s Day on Sunday.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.

Note: You can hear more from Steve Zind today during the Midday Report, when he and General Michael Dubie will talk with VPR’s Steve Delaney.

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