Desert camouflage makes for a conspicuous outfit on a rainy December night in Juneau, but most conspicuous Thursday night at the Moose Lodge was the respect men wearing it earned.
State Sen. Kim Elton said that even as a Vietnam veteran he didn't know what to say to about 20 members of the Alaska National Guard from Juneau who are scheduled to head out to Iraq early next year.
"I have a feeling what I went through wasn't anything like you are going through," he said. When the Army drafted him in 1969, he and his family knew what it meant. He doubted the same held true for the soldiers in the room Thursday night.
More than 100 people crowded the dining room for the event honoring Juneau members of the 3rd Battalion of the Alaska Army National Guard. The soldiers are home for Christmas during their break from training at Fort Bliss, Texas, where they have been since October. They will be deployed with members of the Hawaii National Guard.
The soldiers range from recent high school graduates to seasoned military men.
One of the older members of the group, Mike Lundberg, said it isn't a matter of wanting to go. It's a matter of doing a job he signed up to do. "I've been there already," he said, referring to 1991 with the Army in Operation Desert Storm. "When we left we said we were going back."
Several speakers pointed out that this was the first deployment of Alaska National Guardsmen in a foreign conflict since World War II.
Maj. Duff Mitchell, who will be their commander in Iraq, said Alaska guardsmen had an important role at home in the Cold War. "And now our country has asked us to step forward."
Mayor Bruce Botelho said he was honored to address the men "who are about to step into harm's way."
As America was 30 or 40 years ago concerning Vietnam, "we are a nation divided over Iraq," he said. But he called the division part of "the continuing vitality of the American experience," in a country where the right to dissent is encouraged even in a time of war.
No matter where people stand on the war, they hope for peace and a stable democracy in Iraq, he said. And he said everyone in Juneau is praying that they all return home safe.
Elton told the soldiers they live in a remarkable community with many friends and neighbors who will remember them, not by the uniforms they are wearing but from their being part of the fabric of Juneau.
"The only thing we can pledge to you is that you will be in our thoughts and prayers," he said.