On Thursday morning, 92 soldiers with the Alaska Army National Guard began their journey to Kosovo as part of a peacekeeping mission. 

"Our mission is safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for the Kosovo people," Major Walter Hotch-Hill with the Alaska Army National Guard said. "We'll be there for about nine months, boots on ground, and our soldiers will be out on patrols and providing that safe and secure environment for the local people." 

More than 200 soldiers with the 1st battalion, 297th Infantry will make the trip in all. Due to maintenance issues, half of the unit departed Wednesday morning from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson with the remaining soldiers following Thursday morning en route to Fort Bliss in Texas. 

"We'll be down there for a while training and going through a validation exercise," Hotch-Hill said. "Then we go to Germany for a while, do another validation there, and then we get into Kosovo."

With tensions between Kosovo and Serbia continuing, the battalion will deploy in support of NATO's Kosovo Force. According to a release from the Alaska Army National Guard, the alliance has been leading a peace-support operation in Kosovo since June 1999 in support of wider international efforts to build peace and stability in the area. In 1999, there were 55,000 troops supporting Kosovo Force. Now, there are approximately 4,000 troops belonging to 28 nations, according to the release.

"A lot of our soldiers in the battalion have received U.N. Peacekeeping training," Sgt. 1st Class Oliver Meza with the Alaska Army National Guard said. "That training is similar to that of which we do in Conquest. So our soldiers in the Alaska Army National Guard often attend Conquest training and that has a lot of U.N. Peacekeeping principals and training that we do."

For Meza, this will be his second deployment; his first was to Iraq in 2005. As the battalion's platoon sergeant, he knows that some of the soldiers making their first deployments will need to stay active. 

"One of my duties there is to ensure soldiers are taking care mentally, physically, doing their mission and ensuring they are being productive, physical training, fitness, mental health, talking to one another, checking on each other. Keeping soldiers busy is often a really good recipe for mental health," Meza said. 

The soldiers will be deployed for 10 months in total.

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