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There were hugs, kisses and plenty of tears as 150 troops said their goodbyes Saturday before departing on a six-month mission into the great unknown of Afghanistan.

The cooks, lawyers, medics and others - primarily part of the 1,900-member mission's service battalion - constituted the first deployment of main-element soldiers to the Afghan capital of Kabul.

"It's horrible," said a teary-eyed Dawn Townshend, whose husband Robert Beatteay is a sergeant with the signals corps on his third and last overseas deployment.

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"It hurts to be apart like this and it doesn't get any easier. We take it one day at a time."

In fact, many family members said it will be harder than most deployments. Media reports have persistently reminded them that Kabul, where four German soldiers were recently killed, is an unstable, unsafe place.

Defence Minister John McCallum reiterated the point Saturday, acknowledging that Canadians will be in harm's way but reminding them that they are there for Canada's security as well as Afghanistan's.

"I can tell you that the international forces of which we are a component are the only thing standing between Afghanistan today and falling back into that failed-state status that would allow the re-emergence of the al-Qaeda and the risk of further terrorist attack, whether on the United States or Canada or some other country," Mr. McCallum said.

"The world as a whole cannot afford to allow that to happen, and it is right that Canada step up to the plate and do its part."

Terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, who made his base in Afghanistan, has specifically singled out Canada as a target of his al-Qaeda operatives. At remote bases scattered throughout Afghanistan, al-Qaeda trained and equipped the terrorists who committed the airliner atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001.

A U.S.-led military operation scattered al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters last year but they have re-organized and continue to menace the fragile government of Hamid Karzai as well as threatening further terrorist strikes against the West.

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While the American-led efforts continue, primarily in the south and east regions, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, has patrolled Kabul. The 29-country, 5,600-member force has come under weekly attack and about 20 of its soldiers have been killed.

The military estimates between five and 10 Canadians will die over the course of two deployments in the next 12 months.

Mr. McCallum said afterward that he would resign his post if it is found that any Canadians died as the result of a lack of preparation or equipment. He said he is confident they have the best training and equipment available.

The government says no expense has been spared in assembling the mission, which includes unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, special radar units and artillery.

Those seemed of little comfort to many families. In spite of all the equipment, training and incessant news coverage, for some the mission came down to just one thing.

"I'm being left behind again," lamented Nicole Millar, whose husband Greg will serve as a captain in the battalion's operational headquarters on his third overseas mission, each of them six months.

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The couple has three children, ages four to 16, and Ms. Millar said it's a big adjustment every time her husband goes away, but especially this time.

"The fear factor is big in this mission compared to the rest."

Master Corporal Bonnie Muise, an administrative clerk from Codroy Valley, Nfld., on her second deployment said it's especially difficult leaving her family behind "not knowing what to expect over there."

"I'm nervous, but I'm a soldier and I'll go do the best that I can."

Her husband, mechanic Dennis St-Pierre, retired from the army six years ago after four overseas missions. The former sergeant said he knows the troops are well-trained and will look after each other.

"That's the thing - everybody looks out for the other one. It makes it a lot easier. It'll be hard but we'll work through it. Afghanistan is different."

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Said Major Doug Kromrey, a medic and an 18-year veteran of multiple tours from Nanaimo, B.C.: "This is a different mission. It's a lot farther than I've ever gone and the situation's a little more tenuous at times."

The dire warnings have been harder on his children than him, he said.

However, Major Louis MacKay of Halifax, a legal advisor to the brigade commander, said the troops are well-equipped with what everybody is calling "robust" rules of engagement.

It is Maj. MacKay's job to interpret those rules for the Canadian contingent. He said the interpretations of "lethal force" vary among the nations involved but the Canadians, he said, "are equipped for everything."

"As in any mission, the rules of engagement cannot negate the inherent right of self-defence."

Each of the troops was issued a box lunch, a country familiarization booklet and an ISAF shoulder flash that includes the plain ISAF patch in English and Arabic and the insignia of the Kabul Multi-National Brigade with a fleur-de-lis and a cougar head.

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Family members waved Canadian flags and wept as three buses left for Trenton, Ont., where the troops boarded an aircraft.

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