Army intelligence unit bids families farewell

Aberdeen-based soldiers leave for Southwest Asia on undisclosed mission

January 23, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Virginia Griffith, splayed out playfully on the floor in front of her dad, watched as he stood in stern formation with his fellow soldiers yesterday inside the 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion's headquarters at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

And even at attention, Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Griffith's gaze couldn't help but stray to his 3-year-old daughter, who wiggled her feet lazily and smiled happily at him and other soldiers in the front row.

It was a moment of levity for the small group of men and women of the 203rd who set off yesterday afternoon in the freezing cold for Southwest Asia. The details of their departure and destination were not disclosed, but with tens of thousands of U.S. troops called to the Persian Gulf region, one soldier pointed to his desert fatigues and noted it wasn't hard to draw some general conclusions.

The battalion is a mix of active Army and Army Reserve technical experts, the only one of its kind in the Defense Department, whose mission is "to provide intelligence support to deployed commanders," said Maj. David Matthew, who stayed behind yesterday but expects to join the unit in March.

Since World War II, the unit has provided the military's primary expertise on enemy armaments and has deployed to conflicts including those in Vietnam, Somalia, Kuwait and Kosovo.

"These people bring technical intelligence and look - if we put it in an Iraq context - at what kind of armored vehicles they have, what kind of chemical weapons they have," said Capt. Ben Kuykendall, an Army spokesman in Washington, who called the 203rd the military's "eyes and ears" on the battlefield.

For most of the soldiers, quiet time came over the weekend, eating home-cooked meals, calling friends, and spending time with children and parents. This week has been a flurry of getting shots and packing, said Staff Sgt. Katreva Dupont-Jefferson.

Her daughter, Amber, is 22 months old. "I really don't want to leave my daughter behind," Dupont-Jefferson said. "She was getting a little cranky while I was packing, so I think she knows I am going."

Her husband, Clayton, an instructor at the Ordnance Center and Schools at the proving ground, said although their family is not close by, friends have offered to help, especially with the small but important things his wife would do with Amber, such as braiding her hair.

As the formation fell in, he stood behind the rows and held Amber, who cried and waved. Dupont-Jefferson, in the front row, looked straight ahead.

She, like several of her fellow soldiers and their families, said she was nervous about what is ahead.

Staff Sgt. Elvin Leon-Rivera stood by pensively with his wife, Lissette, and their children Lorraine, 16, and Elvin, 12, who stayed out of school yesterday to see their father off. "I'm scared; I don't know what's going to happen," he said quietly.

For many soldiers, this was their first overseas deployment. But not for Sgt. 1st Class Bruce Coleman, who served in the Persian Gulf war. His twin sons were babies then; today, they are 11 and have a 6-year-old sister. Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of his enlistment. "Kind of my Army present, I guess," he said, chuckling.

Griffith's wife, Marinella, will be left behind to care for Virginia and her 4-week-old brother. The native of Italy said her family has been here for weeks to help.

"I was glad my husband was here to see the baby," she said, adding that uncertainty contributes to the difficulty of saying goodbye. "We don't know how long it's going to be before he will be back."

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