SACO – Kathy Hunnewell, who lives near Calais, watched her daughter disappear into a bus Wednesday, headed to Iraq as a member of the 94th Military Police Company.

“You take good care of her, Mary. You too, Curtis,” she called after others who followed.

“Yes ma’am,” came the reply.

Hunnewell, like dozens of other family members and friends who gathered at the Army Reserve training center in Saco for the send-off, wrestled with a mixture of anxiety and pride.

Her daughter, Jessica McCook, is studying conservation law and rural policing. One weekend a month for the past year, she has driven from Down East Maine, which can be a seven-hour trip in bad weather, to train with the 94th.

“When you bring a child into the world, you raise them to have some dreams and aspirations,” Hunnewell said. “This is my first child to spread her wings and fly. I couldn’t be more proud.”

The 94th is going to Iraq as the U.S. prepares to draw down its forces there, leaving much of the country’s security to Iraqi soldiers and police. The Saco-based detachment has about 45 members, who will have security missions and train Iraqi police to take over when they leave.

The unit was one of the first Reserve units to deploy after the initial invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. It arrived in Iraq in early 2003.

“We were some of the first soldiers in there and we’ll be some of the last,” said 1st Lt. Eric Giles, platoon leader, one of the few in this detachment who served during that initial tour.

The soldiers of the 94th are almost guaranteed to return in one year, because of a policy change that families, and later military commanders, started pushing for after that initial deployment.

As the unit’s soldiers prepared to come home in November 2003, 12 months after being mobilized, their deployment was extended for seven months.

Then, as they waited to board a plane for an Easter homecoming in 2004, they were ordered to stay. Battlefield commanders badly needed experienced fighters.

The soldiers spent another three months guarding convoys and fighting a growing insurgency.

The extended deployment — 16 months in Iraq and 22 months in all — was reportedly the longest Reserve deployment since World War II. It prompted family members to lobby the Defense Department and Maine’s U.S. senators.

Then, adjutant generals from the National Guard in many states said the uncertain length of deployment made it hard to recruit soldiers. All of that led Defense Secretary Robert Gates to issue a directive that National Guard and Reserve units must return home within one year of leaving.

“A year from today, we can be sure (the members of the 94th) will be back in Saco, Maine,” said Maj. Gen. John Libby, who attended Wednesday’s send-off.

That comforts people like Tyson Butterfield, who is deploying, and Katie-Jo Duran.

In the moments leading up to the bus’s departure for Fort Dix, N.J., the couple discussed their wedding plans. Their wedding is set for Oct. 8, 2011.

Members of the 94th expected a sleepy, businesslike departure. They were surprised to find scores of well-wishers and state officials, including Gov. John Baldacci, who praised the unit’s work ethic and promised support for the soldiers’ families while they are gone.

Eric Madore, a 2008 Thornton Academy graduate, was among the soldiers. “The last couple of days, it really hit hard,” he said.

Madore said he has spoken at length about the deployment with his father, Greg Madore.

The older Madore, who served a tour with the Maine National Guard 133rd Engineers in 2004 and 2005, said he is very proud of his son.

The situation in Iraq has improved dramatically since the 94th was last deployed, and much of this nation’s attention has shifted to the war in Afghanistan, Libby said.

But Iraq remains a dangerous place. “They are going into an environment where there are people who don’t want us there,” Libby said.

The 94th has a good record of bringing its people home. While eight earned Purple Hearts in the 2003-04 deployment, everyone made it home.

After Wednesday’s hourlong ceremony, the bus pulled away, soldiers waving through the tinted windows as they left.

As Jason Dudley’s 7-year-old daughter, Sage, ran across the parking lot, watching the bus leave, her grandmother, Sherry Flagg, gathered her in her arms while dabbing at the tears in her own eyes.

Jason Dudley deployed with the 94th at the start of the conflict. “He’s ready to do his job and he does it well, ” Flagg said. “He’s a soldier through and through.”

Hunnewell was already looking to the future, saying, “Homecoming will be a wonderful thing.”

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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