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Families give tearful goodbyes as medical unit deploys to Afghanistan

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 5 2013 6:31 p.m. MST

Staff Sgt. Zach Kesler holds his wife, Nicole, and daughter Kylie as approximately 20 soldiers of the Utah Army National Guards Detachment 2, Charlie Company, 1-171st Aviation, depart from West Jordan on the first leg of their 12-month deployment to Afghanistan, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

WEST JORDAN — Stephanie Hansen held her 2-month-old, Clara, while she stood on the tarmac and watched her husband, John Hansen, climb into a helicopter after saying goodbye for a year.

Three Black Hawk helicopters took off Monday carrying Utah’s first medical evacuation unit of the Utah Army National Guard.

The 22 soldiers of Charlie Company, Detachment 2, first of the 171st aviation regiment, will begin their yearlong deployment to Afghanistan after they complete several weeks of training in Fort Hood, Texas.

Overseas, they will provide medical evacuation and airlift capabilities in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“Day to day, it’s kind of like being an ambulance. You’re on call 24 hours a day … just trying to save lives — that’s our whole mission,” John Hansen said.

Hansen said he knows what he’s getting into as this is his fourth deployment, but it doesn’t get any easier — especially leaving his 2-month-old daughter behind.

“I know what to expect,” Hansen said. “I’ve been to Afghanistan as a medevac pilot before (out of California), so that’s comforting that I know what to expect, but it’s still hard.”

Hansen and 21 others were sent off with a departure ceremony Monday morning. The national anthem was poignant as it resounded throughout the north hangar of the Army Aviation Support Facility.

Hundreds of family, friends and military personnel gathered to say goodbyes.

“I’m grateful to the brave men and women who are departing this day and who are serving our country so valiantly across the world to keep us safe and protect the freedoms that we hold so dear,” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said during the departure ceremony.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher Ryan is leaving a wife and a 3-month-old baby on his first deployment — an assignment he’s nervous about, but also excited. Ryan said the medevac unit is well-prepared and ready for its mission.

"It’s a very gratifying mission to be able to save lives — not only just coalition and American forces, but also Afghani nationals and even Taliban," Ryan said.

Most of the unit members knew about their deployment a year in advance — time useful for preparation but time when the future weighs heavily.

“I’m honestly just relieved to get this thing started,” said Penny McCarthy, captain of the deployed platoon. “The anticipation sometimes is worse than actually going on the deployment, just anticipating day after day and every moment is just so precious with your family and friends.”

McCarthy was 18 when she joined up and has been deployed twice in her 17 years of service. She leaves behind a husband of just six weeks, whom she met at flight school in 2008.

“It’s never easy to be away from family,” McCarthy said. “That’s definitely the most difficult piece, but … you’re doing the job that you’ve trained for, a lot of times years to do, so it’s just a great opportunity for us to be able to get out there and just do this mission.”

She got choked up as she talked about the support she and her platoon have. Many of the soldiers have already spent a lot of time away from family to prepare for this mobilization.

“I am incredibly honored to serve with this fine group of soldiers, men and women who leave their families and loved ones for the first time for perhaps the fourth time, to answer the call of duty,” McCarthy said.

Sgt. Nathan McLaughlin is sacrificing for the second time. The first time he was deployed, McLaughlin came home from Iraq to a 5-month-old daughter.

“It’s hard,” McLaughlin said. “It’s hard to leave my family, it’s hard to leave the state, but at the same time I know it’s going to be rewarding. We’ve been training hard for this, and it’s just going to be nice being able to go over and do our job.”

His daughter, Wendy, now 3 years old, waved throughout the ceremony at her dad, who returned somber smiles.

“He’s a great dad because he plays cars with me. … And he flies Black Hawks like that,” said 5-year-old William McLaughlin as he turned and pointed to a helicopter in the hanger.

McLaughlin and his comrades flew out around 1:30 p.m. after circling around to give family and friends one last chance to wave goodbye to the unit, for which McCarthy had nothing but praise.

“They’re incredible,” McCarthy said. “Such a talented group of individuals and we’ve trained hard. I have the utmost confidence in our abilities, and we’re going to be great.”

Email: madbrown@deseretnews.com

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