2010-01-07 / Front Page

Guard Troops Begin Journey to Afghanistan

By Sandy Vondrasek

In a series of send-off ceremonies, the Vermont National Guard is formally bidding farewell this week to the last of 1500 soldiers tapped for a year’s duty in Afghanistan.

In a surprise announcement yesterday, the Guard said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, will address soldiers deploying Friday. Adm. Mullen is the principal military advisor to the President, Secretary of Defense, National Security Council, and Homeland Security Council.

Twenty-five of the 1500 soldiers shipping out—the largest Vermont Guard deployment since World War II—are from White River Valley towns. A good number of those local soldiers are scheduled to leave following Friday’s ceremony with Adm. Mullen.

The mission for the Vermont soldiers, initially one of mentoring and training Afghan soldiers and police, has changed in the last month, since President Obama laid out a plans for a build-up of U.S. troops from 71,000 already there to about 100,000.

The Vermont Guard’s Maj. Gen. Michael Dubie advised lawmakers in Montpelier Tuesday, "Many of our units will have a more traditional combat role."

Because of the mission change, some Vermont soldiers, including Cpl. Loretta Stalnaker of East Randolph, will receive additional training before shipping out to the Mideast.

Stalnaker, of East Randolph, spent three weeks this fall with other members of the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team at Fort Polk, La. That training focused on military skills, including "basic convoy security, and reacting to IEDs and small arms fire," she said.

Starting Friday, she’ll spend three weeks at Camp Atterbury in Indiana, and then return to Ft. Polk for three more weeks of training, and head to Afghanistan in March.

Stalnaker said it still isn’t clear what duties she’ll be assigned, nor where in the mountainous country she’ll be stationed.

"They keep changing it—as usual," she said.

Stalnaker is hoping she’ll be somewhere with electricity—that’s not guaranteed—and is taking along a computer to help her keep in touch with her husband, two children, and her sister during her absence. They will all be at Friday’s ceremony to see her off.

Leaving Sunday will be Major Michael Papp of Randolph, who, like Stalnaker, is not sure of how the Army will use him in Afghanistan.

That’s not surprising, he said, since orders are "still filtering down" from Pres. Obama’s policy speech.

However, Maj. Papp believes he will most likely be working with Afghans, in training and mentoring activities, and stationed "near a headquarters someplace," as opposed to a remote outpost.

Papp, like Stalnaker, is taking the ambiguity in stride.

"We’ve had lots of training at the brigade, battalion, and company level—as good as training as you can get," he said.

"What we do (to train) doesn’t change much with the mission," he said. "We’ve got the basics down cold—that’s the most important thing."

Maj. Papp’s personal military history is not a common one. He originally signed up for the Army as a high school junior in Illinois, but never went to basic training—because he ended up at West Point.

After graduating from the Academy with a degree in systems engineering, Papp did almost five years of active duty, getting out of the service during the troop drawdown in the mid-90s.

He was working at an Ohio steel mill as a programming support specialist in 2001, when he decided to join the Ohio National Guard after the September 11 attacks on the U.S.

Papp, by then a husband and father of three with a fourth on the way, spent about a year in Iraq, luckily in a unit that saw little hostile action.

The family moved to Vermont a few years ago, to be nearer his wife’s family. Ramsey McLaughlin Papp was born in Randolph.

Maj. Papp said he is not particularly worried about his personal safety: "If I look at the numbers, it is a little more dangerous that the job I had at the steel mill," he said. However, Papp agreed that signs indicate that "this year could be different" in Afghanistan.

"I am more worried about my kids (they’re 12, 10, 8 and 6) being upset because I’m gone," he added.

Maj. Papp said his wife’s father is moving into the family’s Randolph home during his deployment.

"It makes me feel better to know someone will be around there, if a man in the house is needed," he said.

Ramsey Papp is organizing an informal support group for the Randolph area.

"We would welcome any friends or family of service members who wish to participate," she said. "If people are interested, they can email me at ramsey.papp@gmail.com.

"We are not trying to replace the unit's Family Readiness Groups, just hoping to be there for each other," she said.


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