Vt families of war dead deal with mixed emotions

AP News
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Posted: Dec 11, 2009 5:10 PM

They know well the wages of war.

Kathrine Muller lost her son, Pvt. Adam Muller, to a roadside bomb in 2007. Stephen Gray and his wife lost their son the same way, in 2004.

Still grieving, but determined to show their support for Vermont National Guard soldiers headed to Afghanistan, the three were among hundreds of people who attended a teary farewell ceremony Friday for 350 camouflage-clad "Green Mountain Boys" shipping out for the first leg of their one-year deployment.

Just last week, President Barack Obama announced plans to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

"The real reason we're here is to support these boys, to send 'em on a mission we sent our son on, with just as much vigor and enthusiasm, to do a good job, which we know they'll do," said Stephen Gray, 62, of Calais. "We don't want them to think that we've backed away from anything in this conflict, because we haven't.'

His son, Army National Guard Sgt. Jamie Gray, 29, of East Montpelier, was killed June 7, 2004, south of Baghdad.

On Friday, Gray _ wearing his son's camouflage field jacket and accompanied by wife Marion, also 62 _ joined hundreds of family members of soldiers for the send-off ceremony for the 1/172nd Cavalry squadron, held at an indoor tennis facility on the University of Vermont campus in Burlington.

Sitting in folding chairs for a 30-minute ceremony that included speeches, the presentation of a battle flag and patriotic music by a 20-man Army band, they were a bundle of mixed emotions.

"We get concerned that our mere presence is a bit of a downer for the troops," said Marion Gray, who is Jamie Gray's stepmother. "We've had that concern in the past. We're like the ghost that hovers in the background, and always worry about the soldiers looking at us, knowing that we lost a soldier, if that puts a damper on things."

Muller, 49, of Jonesville, knows the feeling. Her 21-year-old son, a gunner with the 10th Mountain Division, died in a roadside bombing near Tal Al-Dahab, Iraq.

Before he left, his unit had been feted with a similar ceremony. She didn't go because he didn't want her to. "I always get so emotional," she said.

Watching the tearful goodbyes Friday by uniformed soldiers to their children, husbands and wives, she understood why.

"It's really sad. These kids, these kids, all these little kids that aren't gonna' see their daddy for a while and, hopefully, they will see them again. It's heartbreaking," she said.

Among the young parents was Specialist Justin Parker, 19, of Georgia, who stood waiting for the ceremony to begin, holding 1-year-old daughter Haley in his arms while his wife, Nicole, rested her head on his shoulder.

"It's kind of overwhelming. We knew about it for a while, but it's still shocking," she said of the deployment.

The troops will train at Camp Atterbury, Ind. They return home Dec. 23 for the holidays and then return to Indiana for more training. They embark for Afghanistan from there, part of a 1,500-strong Vermont National Guard contingent sent to train Afghan national security forces and police.

"Every mother and every grandmother worries about things like this," said Jean Parker, 63, of Burlington, the grandmother of Justin Parker. "His father was in Iraq. It's just something they have to do. They're very patriotic. You're not going to stop them, so you might as well support them."