HELENA — Families and friends bid tearful goodbyes Saturday to about 150 members of the 1-189th unit of the Montana Army National Guard who were deployed to Kuwait.

Most of those leaving are “citizen soldiers” from throughout Montana, who are leaving behind their families and jobs for about a year to conduct aviation operations. They learned about 18 months ago that they probably would be deployed, and ratcheted up training in recent months to get ready for “Operation Spartan Shield.”

“Kuwait is a location we have deployed to in the past and continue to now,” said Maj. Tim Crowe. “It’s in a region in the world that needs this type of aircraft and this type of support. We move personnel there to train with other countries that have aircraft.”

Prior to flying to Kuwait, the guard will spend nine more weeks training at Fort Hood, Texas. The unit also is taking eight Blackhawk helicopters to Kuwait, which are renowned for their ability to haul a lot of people and equipment, as well as “swing loads” below them.

An estimated 600 people gathered at the Helena Army Aviation Support Facility Hangar to bid farewell to the men and women in the unit, many of whom have been deployed numerous times already. Yet having deployed before didn’t make Saturday’s parting any easier.

As those around him took last-minute photographs and embraced one more time, Sgt. Cody Mollett prepared their Blackhawk for flight. He noted that leaving is always the worst part of the deployment.

“Once we get out of here, we are prepared to do our work with the Army,” Mollett said. “But this” — he looked about at his fellow soldiers — “this is the hardest part.”

In a ceremony before the deployment, Maj. Gen. Matt Quinn noted how proud he is of the troops and the sacrifices they’re making.

“I’m proud to be here with you to honor you, but I’m also saddened by this departure,” said Quinn, the guard’s adjutant general. “Today we say goodbye to the 1-189th but welcome closer into our Montana National Guard network the families of the soldiers leaving today.

“You’ve trained as soldiers to be prepared for the year ahead and … you must remain vigilant and disciplined during the entire time you’re away.”

Quinn added that he’s been deployed to Kuwait twice.

“And I don’t miss it at all,” he said, offering a brief moment of levity.

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Turning to the crowd, Quinn thanked the friends, family members and the general public for their support of the soldiers.

“Seeing America’s support for our warriors means an awful lot as you climb those stairs and prepare to leave your loved ones,” Quinn said.

Gov. Steve Bullock also thanked the soldiers for their willingness to serve, noting that they do so with “humble dedication and professionalism.”

“You have skills, confidence, training and resolve. Please rely on it for the next 13 or 14 months,” Bullock said. “To the families, I wish and my family wishes we could carry some of the load placed upon you. Please know that I along with Lt. Gov. (John) Walsh and his staff are completely committed to ensuring you have the support and any assistance we can provide at any time.

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“Be safe.”

In his benediction, Chaplain Ken Duvall urged the soldiers to stay focused and attuned, as well as busy and productive so the time away passes quickly.

“Soon you will be packing to come home,” Duvall said.

After the ceremony, the crowd filed outside. At the far end of the tarmac, a dozen emergency response vehicles flashed their lights and sirens as the troops readied the Blackhawks. Two-by-two, the eight helicopters turned south, then flew onto the runway. They paused for one last instrument check, then gracefully took to the skies amid the roar of the rotating blades.

The Blackhawks flew over Fort Harrison, then took a low swoop over the Army hangar before heading south. One soldier kept his window open, and waved to those on the ground as the Shining Thistle bagpipe band played “Scotland the Brave.”

The Blackhawks and crew will spend Saturday night in Colorado Springs, Colo., before finishing the trip to Fort Hood on Sunday.

After the Blackhawks left, the remaining 100 troops on the ground gave one last embrace and kiss to wives, husbands, children, parents and other loved ones, then slowly walked away to board a bright blue charter jet.

Many had tears in their eyes.

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