Guardsmen bid sad farewells

Guard: Friends and families gather to say goodbye to 47 Maryland Army National Guard soldiers headed for a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.

July 06, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

When the guardsmen with the 629th Military Intelligence Battalion got word they would be deployed overseas for nine months, many feared they were headed for a long, hot tour on the dangerous streets of Baghdad.

But instead of gearing up for war, the 47 Maryland Army National Guard soldiers are headed for peace - they're going to Kosovo to join the United Nations peacekeeping effort in the Balkans.

Yesterday, the teary-eyed soldiers and their families gathered at the unit's armory in Laurel to say goodbye before the bus loaded with green duffel bags and oversized backpacks pulled away.

Many loved ones said the separation is easier to swallow because Kosovo is not as dangerous as Iraq.

But nobody - from the young police officer who has been dating her boyfriend for only four months to the wife who has watched her husband deploy twice before - seemed to have an easy time saying goodbye.

"We just started to get to know each other, and now he's off and gone," said Gabby Quezada, 26, a private with the U.S. Capitol Police who began dating fellow officer Eric Hoar in the spring. "But we bonded pretty quickly, so hopefully that will get us through this."

Hoar, 23, a sergeant with the Guard unit and a private with the U.S. Capitol force, had only a month left in his six-year commitment to the Guard when he received the orders to deploy. Yesterday, Quezada held a CD that Hoar had just given her - filled with pictures from their weekend visit to the beach.

The Montgomery County couple huddled close together, while Hoar's father stood nearby, until Hoar left to join the unit's formation.

Next to them, Gisela Martinez, a University of Maryland, College Park senior who is also in the Army, prepared to say goodbye to her boyfriend, Justin Anderson, 22, a sergeant with the unit. Last year, the Annapolis couple were deployed together to Kuwait; this time, he is going alone.

"I know he's going to have a phone to call, and he's going to have e-mail to write me, so it's going to be OK," Martinez said.

Though the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken center stage since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States maintains more than 2,500 troops in Kosovo.

Tours in the region are not without danger. Land mines abound and tensions erupt occasionally between the ethnic Albanians and the Serbs.

In April, a U.N. police officer from Jordan opened fire on U.S. correctional officers at a U.N. prison in Kosovo, killing two of them. The month before, 19 people were killed in riots that lasted three days.

But the assignment is nowhere near as treacherous as Iraq, where more than 800 U.S. military personnel have been killed - the majority since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations May 1 last year.

"It's hazardous duty in Kosovo, but it isn't imminent danger," said Capt. Christopher French as he prepared his unit for the long trip. "Most of the people in Kosovo embrace us with open arms. We're actually quite popular there."

He added: "Going on this rotation means we're not going to Iraq in the near future, and I think everyone here would agree that that's a good thing."

French said the unit will largely be based in the countryside southeast of Pristina and will work with a multinational force of Polish, Ukrainian and Greek soldiers to help keep peace in the region.

The unit will be "the eyes and ears of the commander," French said. The province has been under the control of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since 1999.

Knowing that the assignment could have been worse did not make it any easier for Sgt. Ramon Burks to board the bus for his third deployment. His son, Davon, 9, and daughter, Kierra, 5, threw their arms around their father, while his wife, LaKeisha, stood close by.

"You can pretty much deal with everything else, but it's hard to explain to them that I'm here one day and then I just disappear," said the 27-year-old computer specialist, who lives in Charles County. "There's no way to sugarcoat it."

Addie Pfeiffer, 13, would have to agree. She cried as she waved goodbye to her brother Brian "Bubba" Pulket, who lives in Virginia but visits her often at her Timonium home.

"I'm glad I came, just to see him before he left," she said through sniffles.

Asked about his mission, she smiled and said: "He's going to Kosovo. He's going to keep the peace over there."

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