Montrose sends unit to war

Rachel Maddry hugs her husband, Vernon, a National Guard soldier, in Montrose as more than 600 people bid farewell Monday to a medical unit that will serve in the war in Afghanistan.

There were Rojas and Eckart, Ybarra and Pleshek, Sorenson, Fox, Savitske, Johnson and Adams. There were Gibson and Goates and Grieger.

In all, 82 soldiers standing at attention. The men: shorn almost to the scalp. The women: pinned back, braided into place.

Some looked young enough to need a baby sitter. Some looked old enough to hire the baby sitter. All of them looked ready.

The Witch Doctors were ready— as ready as it is possible to be — for war.

Monday afternoon, the 928th Area Support Medical Company of the Army National Guard, nicknamed the Witch Doctors, stood before a crowd more than 600 strong in Friendship Hall in Montrose. The soldiers stood and the people cheered, fervent, flag-waving cheers that trod the uncertain emotional ground between pride and fear and hope.

On Wednesday, their 400-day deployment officially begins. They’ll spend a year in Afghanistan, serving five locations in a 250-square-mile area. They’ll live in the combat zone, performing “sick call operations,” said Maj. Ed McLean. That means emergency treatment, triage, ground ambulance evacuation and other duties.

For the past two months, they have had not only medical training in areas such as handling mass casualties, but also training in close-quarters combat   and other skills at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, McLean said. About 45 percent of the soldiers have combat experience — this is McLean’s ninth deployment — and the ones who haven’t are thinking about the basics.

“Where they’ll sleep and what they’ll eat,” said 1st Sgt. Mark Gootee. “They want to know what the living conditions will be, and they ask if we’ll be eating MREs all the time.

“Which we won’t.” Gootee added, referring to the self-contained Meals, Ready-to-Eat.

They’ll have cafeteria meals and somewhat comfortable cots. They’ll have a reserve of knowledge and, in some cases, previous experience. And they’ll have each other.

“It was kind of bumpy at first,” Gootee admitted. “But as we’ve trained together and gotten to know each other, we’ve come together as a team.”

The unity was visible Monday not just as they marched in step, but as they stood in loose circles talking, as they teased each other, as they watched each other say goodbye.

That was the bittersweet part in all this. As soldiers, they have the foundation of training and the motivation of duty to carry them. But as they rush onward, there are certain feet behind them that stay in place. There are wives and husbands and children, mothers and fathers, sweethearts and friends, and they’re staying here.

Sgt. 1st Class Smith, a Montrose native, carried a blond toddler Monday before the send-off ceremony. It was his son, and his son might not want to be carried around like that when Smith returns home next year. A lot could change.

“It really is a bittersweet day,” said Maj. Gen. H. Michael Edwards. “When you look at the family members and folks saying goodbye, it’s tough. Our thoughts and prayers are with our soldiers and with their families.

“But these soldiers represent the best of the best. They represent what it means to be a citizen of the United States of America. They’re bringing hope to a nation that’s looking for opportunities to pursue freedom and to enjoy happiness.”

At the send-off ceremony, promises were made to pray daily for the soldiers, to support their families, to remember that they represent a grateful nation. There was an awareness that war itself isn’t glorious, but service is. Loyalty is. Doing one’s duty in the face of fear most definitely is.

“This is the finest medical unit the Army has to offer,” McLean told the soldiers, who cheered. The crowd joined them.

It was hard to express exactly what was coursing through the air and through every heart — pride for these soldiers, fear for their safety, a recommitment to the lifetime work of patriotism. So, in the absence of words, flags were waved harder, applause was carried out longer, smiles spread wider. There were tears. There was the admonition, offered as advice but said like a prayer, to come home safely.

After the cake was cut, after the procession down Main Street, after the airplane flyover, the soldiers boarded buses back to Colorado Springs. There are only so many ways to say goodbye, and then it’s time for duty.

And the Witch Doctors are ready for theirs.


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