For guardsmen, saying goodbye is not easy

Soldiers prepare to serve 18 months in Iraq

August 20, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Standing in formation, Army Spc. Patrick Morgan stretched his body as tall and proudly as he could yesterday at the Harry C. Ruhl Armory in Towson. His boyish face was twisted into a grim mask as a general sent him and his fellow soldiers on their way to serve 18 months in Iraq.

Maj. Gen. Bruce F. Tuxill, adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, quickly tossed aside military formality and invited the 50 troops from the 129th Signal Battalion and their families around him.

"Look out for each other, and bring each and every one of you back to us," Tuxill said.

The guardsmen wrestled with putting on a brave face while wondering what's so good about goodbye.

As the moments ticked away before they left, they sought solitude in their private worlds of loved ones, favorite memories and a final cigarette before the bus. One soldier brought her pet greyhound.

They all had one thing in common: uncertainty.

But Morgan, 20, whose family came from Bowie to be with him, said, "I know one thing: I'll be taken care of, and I will do the same for my fellow soldiers."

His 19-year-old brother Mark sat with his face in his hands.

"This is tough because we're close," he said, "but my brother bought a laptop, and we'll e-mail each other."

Their mother, Kathy Morgan, said it was hard to say goodbye, but said, "We want to be supportive of him, be proud."

Those who left yesterday were selected from the 129th Signal Battalion and will process into the 116th and 256th Brigade Combat Teams before going to Iraq. They will train in Texas and Louisiana before heading to Iraq.

The unit's top enlisted man, 1st Sgt. John Lester Jr., described the 129th Signal Battalion as "the Verizon of the infantry."

"We provide satellite, wire and computer links for tactical personnel," said Lester, who is a communications engineer.

Unlike the majority of the unit's soldiers, Lester has been deployed overseas before. He served in Operation Just Cause in Panama and in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

"They need to know that they are going into a very dangerous place," he said. Part of their training will be to learn the enemy's tactics of ambushes, roadside bombs and mortar attacks.

Sgt. Lisa Martell, who teaches middle school in Frederick, faced a different set of farewells: her greyhound Koty who joined her at the armory, three cats and a cockatiel at home and two rabbits in her classroom.

"This has been difficult, but my friends and students have been terrific helping me," Martell said. "And I plan on coming back."

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