A full day of pre-deployment training Wednesday enabled National Guard officials to schedule Thanksgiving off for the 423 members of the 144th Evacuation Hospital that will begin leaving Utah for their part in Operation Desert Shield Saturday and Sunday.
Utah National Guard spokesman Maj. Bob Nelson said an ambitious training schedule for the hospital group, which was called to active duty effective Wednesday morning, should enable all of the hospital's members to be at home with their families Thursday for Thanksgiving.Training is expected to continue Friday. A group of the hospital staff that will be driving trucks to the deployment station at Fort Carson, Colo., is scheduled to leave Salt Lake Saturday at 5 a.m., and the bulk of the soldiers are scheduled to leave Sunday at 2 a.m.
The departure schedule is sure to be difficult on family members and friends who plan to see the soldiers off, but was set according to the time officials at Fort Carson want the soldiers to arrive there, Nelson said.
Not all of the National Guard hospital unit's members are required to carry weapons, but those who do split up in three groups at Salt Lake area indoor rifle ranges Wednesday to sight in their M-16s.
Holes in the targets showed a wide range of proficiency with the military's most common weapon, but the hospital staff made no bones about its job preference. "We'd rather be patching holes than shooting them," said a staff sergeant named Steve while waiting his turn at the range.
A 19-year-old private, who joined the National Guard in June 1989 right after graduating from high school, said nuclear, biological and chemical weapons training was the most frightening part of the call-up, but overall she's excited to be going.
Elizabeth, nicknamed "Short Round" by her Guard friends, said she has been expecting an activation notice and her reaction when it actually came was "Wo - finally."
Leaving during the holidays is difficult, especially for her mother and family. "But everyone in the unit treats everyone like family," she said. "In a way, it's like I am with family anyway (for the holidays)."
Elizabeth said she has always loved the military but realizes her enthusiasm to go to the Persian Gulf is a bit unique among the unit's members. "There's a lot of people that don't want to go."
The last names of soldiers involved have been withheld at the National Guard's request.
The first groups of Utah Reservists and National Guard soldiers called to active duty in late August had much shorter notice than the members of the 144th have had. And the time that has passed since the August deployments has given the unit members more time to learn about the conditions in Saudi Arabia.
Two staff sergeants, Steve and Robert, said the hospital members are packing a television and video cassette recorder among the hospital supplies they are taking with them. Each member of their section was assigned to bring a board game, and the hospital's chaplain has suggested members gather a collection of video tapes to bring along for entertainment.
The 400-bed hospital comes equipped with 10 power generators, so finding a plug for the television and VCR shouldn't be a problem, Steve said.