About 300 Maryland National Guard members from three military police units will leave tomorrow for Fort Stewart, Ga., as part of the nation's homeland defense operation.
Despite the hardship of a tour that takes them from home and families, more than 100 guard members re-enlisted for the mission, said Lt. Barbara Maher, a spokeswoman for the Maryland National Guard.
"I wouldn't have been able to look myself in the mirror knowing I walked away from my soldiers," said Robert Chard, a platoon sergeant who re-enlisted.
The military police being sent to Fort Stewart, an army base near Savannah, are the first Maryland National Guard members to be based out of state since the terrorists attacks, Maher said.
The three units - the 290th Military Police Company, the 200th Military Police Company and the 115th Military Police Battalion - had been activated Sept. 12 and sent to guard the crime scene at the Pentagon.
Three weeks later, they were ordered to prepare for their next security assignment, at Fort Stewart.
They are scheduled to report to Maryland National Guard armories in Parkville and Salisbury at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow with their duffel bags packed for the 12-hour bus trip to Georgia.
Not even the Guard members know how long they will be based at Fort Stewart.
The tour is unaccompanied - meaning the soldiers are discouraged from moving their spouses or families.
"We don't know how long they'll be gone," Maher said. "It could be up to two years, but it could be six months. It's better that they not uproot their entire lives."
If spouses and children follow the soldiers to Georgia, officials say there is no way to predict whether the soldiers will be able to spend time with them because they'll be living in barracks.
"I know it can be a big hardship," Maher said. "But this is for all intents and purposes, a time of war."
For nearly two weeks, the support staff has been preparing the MPs for their departure - reviewing immunization records and helping the soldiers arrange for their bills to be paid until they return. The staff assured them there will be 24-hour assistance for their families while they're gone.
Those soldiers whose service would have ended in the next year had to re-enlist to be part of the mission to Georgia. They could sign up for from an additional year to six years, Maher said.
Chard's service with the 290th MP Company would have ended in October next year. But the 39-year-old Parkville electrician re-enlisted for another year.
"Believe me, no one prays for peace harder than a soldier," said Chard, who is leaving his 8-year-son. "If they told us we didn't have to go, you'd hear the sigh of relief all over Baltimore. But come Saturday morning, we'll all be there together, standing tall."
Still, the deployment of Maryland National Guard units to another state has upset some Guard members' relatives, who say they don't understand why the MPs are being sent to Georgia, which has its own national guard.
But Maher explained that because the guard units have been federalized, they take their orders from the Defense Department. "They no longer belong to Maryland," she said.
The wife of one Maryland Guard member wrote to the governor's office to express concern about this mission out of state when there are so many airports, public buildings, and federal complexes in this area.
The Maryland National Guard's military police units were already assigned to a federal mission, Maher said, so keeping them in Maryland wasn't an option.