Sheldon Linton, a full-time electrician in the Alaska Air National Guard, left Anchorage for Afghanistan Monday. When he returns four months from now, he'll be a first-time father.
Linton's wife, Ashley, is due to give birth to Hyder, a boy, in August. It will be hard to have Sheldon gone, Ashley said. "But we have so much to look forward to."
Linton is one of more than 180 airmen from the Guard's 176th Wing deploying to Afghanistan, the largest deployment since 2003, said Capt. John Callahan, a spokesman.
The biggest group left from a transport staging area at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on Monday, Memorial Day. Others will leave later this week.
Parents and children and pet dogs came to say goodbye to the Guardsmen, Alaskans who typically work full-time jobs at places like insurance offices and fire departments in addition to serving to the military.
Those deploying include the elite search-and-rescue units, the 210, 211 and 212th squadrons that spend their stateside time flying helicopters and HC-130s to rescue Alaskans stuck on mountaintops or lost in the wilderness.
Many, including para-rescuers, are full-time Guardsmen.
They are some of the best trained Guardsmen in the nation, in part because Alaska is their training ground, said 176th Wing Commander Scott Wenke.
The same units helped pluck two injured, teenage hikers from a mountain in Whittier early Sunday morning.
In 2011, the Alaska Air National Guard made 79 rescues statewide, Callahan said.
While they're gone, other agencies will pick up their search-and-rescue work.
Crews from the 176th Maintenance Group and a handful of others will be on the deployment as well.
In Afghanistan, they'll take on a risky and essential mission, Callahan said: rescuing injured troops from combat zones, sometimes under fire, and transporting them to medics. Maintenance crews will keep helicopters and planes ready to fly.
Toby Lund, a full-time Guardsman who is an aircraft electrician, is on his third deployment. Life overseas becomes a routine, he said. "Work-eat-sleep."
His 17-year-old stepson, Hunter Parrish, who has a genetic syndrome that causes autism symptoms, was there to see him off with wife Sonja Goedde-Lund.
Lund passed his son a Thor action figure and cookies and patted his knee to soothe him.
He's not sure how much Parrish realizes that he's going.
"I'm sure after a few days of me not being there, he'll be like, 'Something isn't right.'"
Lund regrets missing the Alaska summer, when he fishes, chops firewood and grills for family dinners. Father's Day, a birthday and his wedding anniversary will pass before he gets back.
But what the Air Guard is doing is important, he said.
"We have a real mission," Lund said. "Our job is saving lives."
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at email@example.com or 257-4344.
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News