Skype Links Guardsmen to Home on Holidays


BANGOR, Maine -- It's a pretty good bet that relatives and loved ones of Maine's 300-plus currently deployed citizen-soldiers will get to spend a little time together on Christmas, even though they are on opposite sides of the globe.

"Thank God for Skype," said Melissa Higgins, who is married to Spc. Philip Higgins, a crew chief for the 126th Aviation Medevac unit in Bangor, which has 120 members in Kuwait.

"We're very fortunate. We can Skype at least a couple times a week," she said.

The 126th, which is scheduled to return stateside in February, is one of several units from Maine serving overseas.

Currently, the Maine National Guard has approximately 310 personnel deployed to Afghanistan and the Middle East in support of current operations," Maj. Michael Steinbuchel, spokesman for the Maine Army National Guard, said Friday.

Members of the 126th, known as the "Black Bears," are trained to provide medical evacuations to injured patients using Blackhawk helicopters. Their commander, Maj. Mark Stevens, a 1987 Kennebunk High School graduate, is leading 102 weekend warriors from the 126th in Kuwait.

Capt. Eric Dos Santos, commander of the 488th Military Police Company, left Maine in July with 122 military police officers heading to Afghanistan. The Maine Army National Guard unit, nicknamed the "Guardians," is based in Waterville with a detachment in Houlton.

Dos Santos is a officer with the Augusta Police Department.

The unit's mission is to conduct police, detainment and stability operations to enhance security for coalition and Afghanistan forces.

The Army National Guard also has a handful of soldiers in Afghanistan serving with the 1968th Contingency Contracting Team and the 120th Regional Support Group, both from Augusta.

The Maine Air National Guard has citizen airmen in the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan and Spain who are from the 101st Air Refueling Wing in Bangor, the 265th Combat Communications Squadron from South Portland and the Joint Force Headquarters based in Augusta.

"It's over 180 for the Army currently deployed and over 130 for the Air [National Guard]," said Steinbuchel, who knows what it's like to be away for Christmas.

Seven years ago, he was the commanding officer for the 136th Engineer Company, of Lewiston and Skowhegan, while the unit was in Iraq. When soldiers are overseas during the holidays, there is always a significant effort made to serve a traditional holiday meal, and the soldiers are given an extra-special treat, Steinbuchel said.

"The officers will serve the food," said the former commander, who also took the 3-6 a.m. guard shift on Christmas Day eight years ago. "It's a tradition."

Steinbuchel said the technology available nowadays is a great way for soldiers to keep in touch with loved ones back home.

"My father is a Vietnam vet, and my mom still has letters that took upwards to a month to get them," he said. "It's pretty amazing."

Melissa Higgins agrees. An "Army brat", she already understands what it means to have a loved one away for the holidays.

Her parents both served in the military. Her father was deployed to Germany with the 126th during the first Gulf War in 1991 and later retired from the unit, and her mother retired from the Army National Guard.

While her father was in Germany 21 years ago, "You could maybe make a call once a month, if you were lucky," she said.

Higgins gave birth to the couple's first child in April with her husband of three years by her side, but shortly afterward he had to return to his unit in Kuwait. Since then, they have stayed connected by video-chatting on Skype.

"Being a mother has been wonderful, but it's also been a challenge," she said. "He's the baby person."

She said there no set time on Christmas Day for the planned Internet conversation with her husband because his schedule could change.

"It will be in the morning, unless he's flying," said Higgins.

After the video chat, she and her son will visit her parents first, then his parents.

"Next year, we'll start making our own Christmas traditions," Melissa Higgins said.

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