MONTPELIER -- Many of the 50 Vermont Army National Guard members heading to Iraq are veterans of peacekeeping operations in Bosnia who volunteered for a second tour, this time to an active war zone where they will be asked to evacuate wounded, injured, or sick service members.
During his six-month tour in Bosnia, pilot Keith LeBlanc, a chief warrant officer from Burlington, said his unit flew about 20 ambulance missions. During his year in Iraq, he expects the unit to fly about 1,000 missions.
''We're on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said LeBlanc, 32, a 15-year Guard veteran who serves full time.
The Blackhawk helicopters he flies can be airborne within 15 minutes of receiving a call from troops on the ground and have a range of hundreds of miles.
LeBlanc is a member of Company C of the 126th Aviation Battalion, an air ambulance unit based at the Burlington International Airport and in Massachusetts.
They begin active duty today and are scheduled to leave Vermont on Friday and travel to Fort Dix, N.J., for about two months of training. They expect to be in Iraq for a year.
There are currently about 1,200 Vermont National Guard members on active duty, about 500 in Iraq, and 400 in Kuwait. A number of others are training for duty in Afghanistan.
Even though they will be flying through hostile country, the Blackhawk helicopters that LeBlanc flies, with red crosses painted on the doors, are unarmed. ''We're absolutely vulnerable," LeBlanc said.
Still, the risk to the helicopter crews is relatively low and the importance of evacuating wounded or injured soldiers is vital.
''There's no greater honor for a soldier [than] to go in harm's way to get out another soldier. Going in unarmed is just part of the job," he said.
LeBlanc said the benefits of helping Iraq change would make the mission worthwhile.
''The reason why we do it, we have the power to make a difference," LeBlanc said. ''When we make a difference it's to make things better for people we are going to help. There is no greater reward in life than seeing the fruits of your labor."