Hugs from family members and a prayer by the chaplain prefaced the pre-dawn departure of the largest National Guard or Reserve group to leave the state in Operation Desert Shield.

Approximately 415 members of the Utah National Guard's 144th Evacuation Hospital left for Fort Carson on Saturday and Sunday on the first leg of an active-duty tour to the Persian Gulf that is expected to last 180 days.Small children bundled in coats and infants wrapped in blankets weathered the cold during the early morning departures as they said goodbye to parents whose transformation from weekend to full-time soldiers will keep them away from home well beyond the holidays.

Communities along the Wasatch Front are expected to feel the ripple effect of the departure of the unit's 24 doctors and 49 nurses, most of whom left medical practices or hospital positions because of the call-up, and almost 400 others who also will be away from their civilian jobs.

Several married couples leaving together with the unit and a number of men and women who are leaving their children behind gave an indication of the personal sacrifice families are having to make because of the activation.

Eight women of the unit's 423 members are exempt from the call-up because they are pregnant, and several others will not be going for other reasons, but there are very few exemptions for a group this large, said Maj. Bob Nelson, spokesman for the Utah National Guard.

Between 60 and 70 hospital staff members left in a military truck convoy shortly after 5 a.m. Saturday. The bulk of the unit's members were scheduled to leave on a dozen chartered buses Sunday at 2 a.m. The departure times were set by Army officials according to the time the hospital's members are expected to arrive at Fort Carson, Colo., which is the unit's mobilization station.

Last-minute training at Fort Carson will preface the group's departure for an undisclosed duty station in the Middle East where it will meet up with hospital tents and other hardware that have been in storage in Germany. Once operational, the unit will staff a mobile hospital capable of caring for 400 patients.

The hospital was put on alert Nov. 15 and was formally called to active duty Wednesday, giving its members more notice than previous National Guard and Army and Navy reserve troops from Utah have had. But some of the staff were called as early as Monday to help get the entire group ready to go.

A sergeant named Rick spent Saturday and Sunday at a regular weekend drill and then began working full time at the armory Monday - the same day his wife, Nancy, gave birth to the couple's second child.

With the baby already overdue, the doctor induced Nancy's labor to make sure Rick would have a chance to see his new child, named Christopher, before he left.

The family also had Rick's Christmas early, and most of his presents were tailor-made for the journey, including a Walkman stereo and a set of horseshoes. "I won't even have to dig a pit for those," he said, referring to playing horseshoes in the desert of the Middle East. "There's plenty of sand."

Rick said he didn't have the time to make as many preparations as he would have liked. The swamp cooler of their home is still uncovered, for example. "I'll have to get my brother-in-law to do that," Rick said.

Family-like bonds among the unit members and experiences in seeing the hospital staff in action make it easier for Nancy to see her husband go. She said doctors in the hospital saved Rick's life after he suffered an allergic reaction to an insect bite while training with the unit near Flaming Gorge. "These people really know what they're doing," she said.