Sending off the local National Guard battalion

On May 4, about 2,500 people gathered at the Jackson County Fairgrounds to witness the Mobilization Ceremony for the 1st Battalion, 186th Infantry, Army National Guard of Oregon. The Guard soldiers from Roseburg arrived in buses, led by a group of motorcyclist-veterans. This battalion is headquartered in Ashland, with companies from Medford, Grants Pass and Coos Bay also present.

The day was rainy and cool; the covered arena was cavernous and drafty. The mood of the crowd was not quite somber, but nonetheless subdued. Spouses, children, parents and other family and friends were there to mark the departure of these soldiers, who were about to leave for two final months of training in Georgia before flying to Iraq.

There they are expected to provide reconnaissance and security as the waging of war against "insurgents" continues to be transferred to the Iraqi National Army. Some, certainly, are likely to be killed or wounded, yet most of them are expected to return after a year. This extended separation is a huge disruption for their families and for their careers. Many of them are parents with young children. Some are the mothers of infants.

About 500 soldiers marched in formation onto the dirt floor of the arena, to the music of the Army Band. They were wearing the rumpled camouflage outfits that always make me think of children in pajamas, and their pant legs were tucked into desert boots. They did not look the least bit ferocious, and some motherly part in me lurched, thinking some of them scarcely looked tall enough to be soldiers.

Surely these young people are not meant to be war fighters? Then I thought of pictures I've seen of scrawny Iraqi soldiers with bad teeth who look even less likely to inspire fear in "the enemy," and I wondered what on earth this could all be about.

After some music by the Southern Oregon Scottish Bagpipe Band, flags were ceremonially exchanged, and there were speeches. Governor Kulongoski, in his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Oregon National Guard, earnestly promised to see that the Guard's needs for equipment and supplies are met and to see that families are supported in their absence. He vowed, "We will watch your back."

The mayor of Central Point was unable to come at the last minute, and so our own Ashland Mayor John Stromberg was on the podium, looking as though he'd barely had time to tie his shoelaces before his brief, extemporaneous remarks. He spoke from the heart, and it seemed to me that if he was not previously fully aware that our local National Guard is involved in the current U.S. wars, he was awakened by this event and promised to keep track of their movements from this point forward. It is my hope that we all will do the same. The war is only far away if we don't appreciate that our neighbors are among those doing the fighting.

As the soldiers marched out, on their way to war, I felt a mix of emotions I can't quite describe. The scene felt so timeless, archetypal, human and sad. And now ... what will become of them, or us?

Maureen Hicks is a writer living in Ashland.

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