HELENA (AP) - Twenty-seven members of a Montana National Guard air ambulance detachment left today for another tour of duty, one that military officials say could send them to Iraq for as long as two years.
Soldiers with Detachment 1 of the Wyoming-based 1022nd Air Ambulance Co. left Helena this morning, bound first for Fort Carson, Colo.
The Guard's Major Scott J. Smith said the soldiers will undergo training for up to 45 days, then are likely to be sent to Iraq, where they could be deployed for up to two years.
How long they are away ''is very unpredictable right now,'' Smith said today. ''But the possibility is there that they could be gone for a full two years.''
The 1022nd is currently one of the Guard's most heavily used detachments. It is responsible for the evacuation by helicopter of injured soldiers from the battlefield.
All 40 members of the Helena detachment were called up in March 2003 for Operation Enduring Freedom. They spent nearly six months at Fort Carson, but were not sent overseas. When they returned in August, they were sent to fight Montana's forest fires.
The detachment also was sent to Bosnia for about nine months in 2002.
Smith said some members of the detachment are being allowed to stay behind this time.
''The bottom line is they are taking soldiers based on mission needs,'' he said. ''Some have volunteered to go. Some of them wanted to go.''
Among those who left today was Staff Sgt. James Kelly of Butte. He said he understands the importance of his mission, but worries about how the extended time he is gone will affect his family.
''What bothers my 8-year old daughter is - if we just got back, why are we going again?'' Kelly told the Independent Record. ''She doesn't understand the scope of it.''
''How do you explain to a little kid that you're going to miss two of her birthdays?'' added Spec. Cherien Downen, a helicopter mechanic from Great Falls.