CRISFIELD - The countdown began in earnest here yesterday for the safe return of the 1229th Transportation Company.
As U.S. officials appear poised to declare an official end to hostilities in Iraq, the truck drivers and mechanics of the Eastern Shore unit left the Virginia Army base where they have been bivouacked since March 4, boarding a plane that family members say was bound for Kuwait.
The move overseas was welcomed by some of the 60 Maryland National Guardsmen, who had become bored with the repetitious training and the tedium of waiting.
They were ordered to active duty nearly three months ago, and it had been seven weeks since they rumbled out of this town of 2,880.
It was a mixed blessing at best for family members, who are grateful their soldiers served stateside as the U.S.-led invasion unfolded.
"I look at this as just another hurdle in getting him home again," Michael Wigglesworth said of his son, Spec. Michael Wigglesworth Jr.
His daughter-in-law Tracy Wigglesworth, said that for her, the countdown dates from the 1229th's activation notice in February. The unit's one-year activation, which can be extended by the Army, is what counts the most, she said.
"We all know they could be re-assigned after that year, but we don't even want to put that into the equation," Tracy Wigglesworth said. "My 8-year-old daughter wants to know if `Daddy is gone, gone.' She has a little map that makes it look like such a small world."
For spouses who have gotten used to nightly phone calls and the four-hour drive to Fort Lee, Va., for hurried weekend visits, the long-delayed deployment was another dip in what one woman called "an emotional roller coaster."
"Obviously, we know that other families have suffered much more, and we feel for them," said Robey French, who visited her husband, Spec. John French, over the weekend with the couple's 19-week-old daughter, Delaney.
"What we worry about now are all the fluke things that could happen - snipers, suicide bombers, mistakes," said French.
French, a 31-year-old speech therapist at Whittington Primary School in Crisfield, said the delay in the unit's deployment has eased the transition for family members, who have adjusted schedules and routines in anticipation of a separation that could last a year.
French, whose husband, a former Marine, is service manager at a car dealership in town, has given up the head coaching job with the Crisfield High softball team, which she has enjoyed for three seasons.
"I have a new home, a new baby and John gone. That called for some changes," she said. "The good thing is that people in town have been very kind, very giving."
For Carolyn Evans - whose husband, Staff Sgt. Robert T. "Muggsy" Evans, served in the Persian Gulf war in 1991 - the routine is all too familiar. Her hope is that the 1229th will be hauling humanitarian aid, perhaps relieving another transportation company whose members will be allowed to go home.
Evans - a member of the Town Council, a partner in a small bake shop and the grandmother of two - plans to keep as busy as possible. But that hasn't eased the separation for the couple, who will mark their 37th anniversary in June.
"This is where we are, and it could have been a whole lot worse; it has been so much worse for other families," Evans said. "But I guess the bottom line is that I just miss him so much already."