TOPSHAM — Amid dozens of Marines in their brown battle dress uniforms, 6-year-old Kaitlin Catalano’s pink polka-dot coat seemed like a beacon.
For hours Thursday, the little girl had held tight to her Uncle Joe, Lance Cpl. Joseph Bianconi of Lisbon. So when he headed toward the bus that would begin his journey to Afghanistan, Kaitlin went too.
She held his hand as he slung two packs on his back and walked out the gate of the Marine Corps Reserve Training Center in Topsham. When he reached the door of his bus, he said goodbye to his family. There were more nieces, his mother, Deborah Sisson-Bianconi, and his father, Gregory Bianconi.
Joseph kissed Kaitlin on the head and disappeared behind the tinted glass of the bus.
“I’ve been trying to explain that I’ll be gone for a while and I’ll be a long way away,” the 27-year-old uncle said earlier. “But I’ll be back.”
That’s the plan for all 150 Marines of Company A, 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, a reserve unit whose members stretch across New England. On Thursday evening, the Marines planned to board a plane in Massachusetts and fly to Camp Pendleton, Calif.
After several weeks of training, they will fly to Afghanistan. They are expected to return home within a year.
For more than half of the men, it will be their second or third trip to the Middle East, said Maj. Matt Dilullo, the company commander. The unit last deployed in 2006. Some were with Alpha Company then. Several deployed with other units.
This time, their job is mentoring the Afghan military in security and counter-insurgency, Dilullo said. And though there may be convoy operations and other work that could put the Marines in harm’s way, the Afghans will take the lead and the most dangerous jobs.
“We’re not going to be digging people out of caves,” Dilullo said.
He insisted that Sunday’s news — the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden by Navy SEALs — would not change their mission.
“It doesn’t affect us one bit,” Dilullo said. “We’re fighting the Taliban.”
It’s a fight that Sgt. Jason Wing of Rumford is looking forward to joining.
Wing, 26, has deployed twice to Iraq. He’s ready to try roughing it in the Afghan mountains, he said.
“Marines thrive on living in the most austere conditions possible,” he said.
Yet, Wing — whose civilian job is patrolling northern Oxford County for the Maine State Police — isn’t sure where he will end up. The soldiers don’t know whether they will be at a large forward operating base or a small outpost.
Lance Cpl. Stephen Roop, 28, of Lewiston, doesn’t care where the Marines send him, as long as he goes.
“I want to put boots on the ground,” said Roop, who figures he may try to become an officer when he returns. “I’ve been ready for this since ’08 when I enlisted.”
The enthusiasm seemed part of the Marines’ going-away celebration Thursday.
Before shipping out, they gathered with their families and ate burgers in the training center’s common area. Some milled around, meeting each other’s families. There were visitors, too.
Gov. Paul LePage walked through the crowd a couple of hours before they left. He shook hands and posed for pictures.
“It’s what it’s all about,” LePage said. “These warriors are going out and putting their lives on the line for the rest of us. I think it’s the least we can do as public servants to come and meet them and see them off.”
Among the families saying goodbye was Capt. Earl Weigelt of the Maine National Guard. The Army chaplain was there to send off his son, Kenton, 20, of Winslow.
The elder Weigelt spent nearly a year in Afghanistan, beginning in 2009.
It gave him a unique perspective for a father and will make him a good resource for his son. Over there, Weigelt prayed with and counseled the soldiers in his unit. Many saw horrific combat.
“It elevates my concern,” Capt. Weigelt said. “But the element of the unknown is a bit less.”
“I trust God with my son,” he said.
For Pfc. Weigelt, his dad’s experience will pay off when he returns home.
“He’ll be someone I know I can talk to,” Kenton said.
Before they boarded the buses, the Marines grouped in four platoons and stood in formation.
Capt. Weigelt led them in a short prayer.
“Lord, bring these warriors back safely, and soon,” he said.