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Departing Reservists stay focused on a safe return

Some shed tears. Others smiled.

But all 60 soldiers in the Army Reserve’s Las Vegas-based 650th Regional Support Group were focused on one thing as they slung their duffel bags on an airport-bound bus Monday and embarked on the first leg of a yearlong trip that will take them to Afghanistan: Do the job and come home safe.

The scene of citizen-soldiers saying their goodbyes at Taylor Hall Reserve Center on East Sahara Avenue was a snapshot of men and women from “all walks of life” and many points in the nation, said Col. David J. Daniels.

There were school teachers, college professors, security guards, police officers, a mechanic, a locomotive engineer, accountants and “a lot of young soldiers going to college,” he said.

There was a Vietnam War helicopter door gunner clutching his granddaughter while he watched his own daughter depart for a war zone.

“I don’t feel real good right now,” said Charles Puú as his daughter, Sgt. Sharlani Puú, a chaplain’s assistant from Las Vegas, walked toward the bus.

“I’m proud of her,” added the veteran who served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971.

Daniels, a fruit farmer from Utah, will lead the team’s effort to train Afghan soldiers. After a training stint in Fort Hood, Texas, he will take his citizen-soldiers to Kabul.

Their assignment is part of the exit strategy for withdrawing U.S. troops in 2011, a decade after Operation Enduring Freedom began in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Their departure comes less than three months after 700 Nevada Army National Guard soldiers returned from nine months in war-torn Afghanistan.

“We want to partner with the Afghan army at all levels,” Daniels said. “So we’re basically taking 7,000 to 9,000 (Afghan soldiers) a month and making them battalions. We’re trying to get the Afghan army developed so we can eventually leave the country.”

Giving the Afghan National Army knowledge about supplies and logistics will be key to its fight against the insurgency and the Taliban.

“You’ve got all these people who are going to be fighting,” Daniels said. “How do you get them their fuel, their water, their food, their ammunition? How are you going to sustain them so they don’t run out of supplies while they’re doing their job.”

About 15 percent of the Army Reserve support group have previously deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan or both.

“Everyone is going to miss their family but we’re focused, pretty much with high morale. We’re ready to go to see what we have to do there, ready for a new experience,” said Sgt. Samantha Scott, who’ll be on her third overseas tour. This time, she leaves behind a 9-month-old daughter, London, as well as her 9-year-old son, Jordan.

Eighteen-year-old Pfc. Darleen Dolbee, of Las Vegas, is leaving her parents, Ed and Bonnie Dolbee, and twin sister, Samantha Dolbee, who is also an Army Reserve soldier.

“I think the main thing is that I’m going to be missing my family,” she said. “It’s going to be really hard but I can stick through it.”

This will be the second deployment for Sgt. Francisco Vargas, a Las Vegas mechanic who previously served with the Marine Forces Reserves in Iraq.

“I’m happy to go,” he said. “I think even though it’s a dangerous part (of the world), it’s a necessity for us to go to help these people be able to help themselves.”

Sgt. Justin Lis, a 27-year-old Las Vegas security guard, said he was “a little bit nervous” when he headed out for Iraq in 2007 but “this one I feel pretty good about.” He said his family “knows the routine.”

Master Sgt. Mike Zachgo, who has served 33 years in the military, also said he has rehearsed the mental process.

“I’ve been through it many times but I’m looking forward to getting over there and for the opportunity of working with the Afghan army and trying to help them along so they can take a foothold and hopefully take the lead and allow us to exit out of there and turn their country around,” he said.

Staff Sgt. Heather Young, a prior-service intelligence analyst from Buckner, Mo., has a 23-year-old son who is a military policeman and who will be deploying two months after she returns.

“We’re all going to miss our families but we feel it’s going to be harder on them than us,” she said. “We’re doing this for our country, for the freedom we have here.”

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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