PORTLAND – A bittersweet mixture of pride, anticipation and fear permeated the Portland Expo on Saturday morning as a capacity crowd gathered to honor nearly 200 Maine Army National Guard soldiers preparing for deployment to Afghanistan.

Friends and family members, along with dignitaries including Gov. Paul Le- Page and U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, gave a heroes’ send-off to soldiers of the 133rd Engineer Battalion and 1035th Survey and Design Team, both based in Gardiner.

The soldiers, who represent 110 cities and towns in Maine and seven communities in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, have been chosen for a one-year deployment to assist in the handing over of domestic-security responsibilities in Afghanistan from NATO to Afghan forces.

The group of departing soldiers includes a historic first: A mother and son, Spcs. Holly and Andrew Parker of Unity, are deploying to Afghanistan together.

They are the lucky ones, ceremony attendees said, as most of the soldiers will be away from their entire families for at least a year.

For family members sitting in the packed bleachers, the ceremony evoked conflicting emotions.

Paula Kirkpatrick of Eddington said she and her husband, deploying mechanic and fueler Sgt. Matthew Kirkpatrick, have never spent a whole year apart throughout their nearly two decades of being together.

“This is our first deployment,” she said. “I’m terrified, I’m scared, but very proud.”

Kirkpatrick said she, her husband and their children will have to rely on phone calls, email, Facebook, Skype and “old-fashioned pencils and paper” to stay in touch.

The 133rd, Maine’s largest Guard unit, was most recently deployed to Iraq for a year in 2004. During that deployment, four of its soldiers were killed and 43 were wounded.

The engineer battalion also has served a previous stint in Iraq, as well as a tour in Bosnia.

Supply Spc. Cherish DeBeault, one of the soldiers deployed in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, said her upcoming tour in Afghanistan will be more difficult emotionally.

“Now I’m a divorced, single mom,” she said, standing next to her 7-year-old son, Mason Cooper, after the ceremony.

DeBeault said Mason would be staying with a close friend for the upcoming year.

“My biggest fear is making sure my son is OK, and that he won’t forget about me when I’m gone,” she said.

Brig. Gen. James Campbell, the Maine Army National Guard’s adjutant general, described the mission as “unglamorous” but absolutely essential in the effort to safely turn over military control of Afghanistan to its people.

To that end, the soldiers will be involved in a wide variety of activities to help friendly troops move from place to place while impeding the enemy’s movement.

That can include the fortification of friendly troop positions, construction or demolition of roads and bridges, clearing of routes, removal of mines and neutralization of explosives, among other duties.

“The engineers have always been that Swiss army knife for the military,” the 133rd Battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. Dean Preston said to his troops, seated in their battle-dress uniforms in front of the audience. “You’ve excelled at every challenge I’ve thrown at you.”

Preston then turned to the parents and guardians of his soldiers.

“These are the heroes that you built,” he said. “Be proud of the job you’ve done.”

Throughout the ceremony, a parade of political leaders spoke to the soldiers and their families, including LePage, Collins, King, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud.

They talked about Maine’s long military history and thanked the soldiers for their service.

“It’s a complete honor to be here in front of you,” LePage said.

“Please stay focused and stay safe.”

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

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Twitter: @jcraiganderson