ESSEX JUNCTION, Vt. -- By now, the choreographed ceremonies are as painfully familiar as the arctic chill that crept across the Green Mountains late last month, when 400 more members of the Vermont National Guard were sent to war.
Boxes of tissues and Dunkin' Donuts greeted teary well-wishers packed inside the hangar-size pavilion at the Champlain Valley Exposition and Fairgrounds. Soldiers loaded Ryder trucks with olive-drab duffel bags before taking their places in formation. The state's three-member congressional delegation, which voted unanimously against invading Iraq, saluted the departing troops in speeches, but not the mission they are about to undertake.
Since early November, the scene has been repeated seven times in Vermont -- one of the nation's smallest states, but one that is absorbing some of the war's biggest impact.
Vermont's National Guard and reserve units have the second-highest mobilization rate per capita, trailing only Hawaii's. And, with seven active-duty service members and four Guard members who have died in Iraq, it has lost more residents as a percentage of its population than any other state.
While military service is a source of pride in local communities, the activation of 1,400 troops also has taken a heavy toll on hundreds of families and left small businesses and police barracks understaffed.
But even as flags and yellow ribbons adorn homes here, antiwar activists are uniting. A recent petition drive succeeded in placing a resolution opposing the use of Vermont's Guard in Iraq on the agendas of about four dozen town meetings, which take place statewide on March 1.
"All of this has certainly had an impact on a broad cross section of the Vermont community, economically, socially and in every other way. With so many deployed so far away from such a small state, the war touches the lives of every one of us," said Peter Clavelle (D), the seven-term mayor of Burlington, the state's largest city.
Vermont has a population smaller than the city of Baltimore, with about 619,000 residents, according to census estimates. The 400 soldiers from the 172nd Infantry Regiment (Mountain) and other units who deployed in January are bound for Iraq after a training stop in Mississippi. About 200 National Guard soldiers who spent the past year in Iraq left this week for home. About 600 soldiers from the 2nd Battalion of the 172nd Armored Regiment are serving in Kuwait. Other Vermont units have been sent to Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia on tours that generally last 18 months, according to the Vermont National Guard.
"As for which units get called up, it tends to come down to specialties," said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association in Washington, an advocate for Guard members. "Vermont has some unique specialties, like its mountain warfare unit. Other states haven't been hit as hard. But [military authorities] make an effort to ensure there are enough left behind for emergencies and that [they] distribute deployments equitably across states."
Currently just under 50 percent of Vermont's Guard force is mobilized. But to Paul Adamczak, manager of Blue Seal Feeds and Needs, a factory that blends raw materials into meals for pets and livestock, it sometimes seems as if half of the state is overseas.
There are nine yellow ribbons in the seventh-floor windows of his plant in Richford -- a town snug against the Canadian border with a population of about 2,300 -- one for every employee called up by the Guard in the past three months. An electric candle in the vestibule shines on a list of their names.
His son, Greg, who ran the plant's dairy feed operation, deployed last month. A receptionist, Stella Paquette, has seen two of her brothers, Serge and Mike, who also work at Blue Seal, called up.
"We've been hit hard. Some of these are highly specialized jobs, so it is very hard to find people who can step in and replace them. And no one wants to come from another company when they know that these guys will come back in a year and a half," Adamczak said. "But we will do whatever it takes, because we appreciate what they are doing."
Air National Guard Lt. Col. Lloyd Goodrow of the Vermont Employers Support Group of the Guard and Reserve told departing soldiers in a recent pre-deployment briefing that "99.9 percent of the civilian employers in this state are supportive and recognize their obligations under federal law."