440 Md. soldiers off to Egypt in peacekeeping role

National Guard deployment to Sinai Peninsula unconnected to current Middle East conflicts

March 24, 2011|By Nick Madigan and Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

Iris Straitt had some sage parting words for her son.

"Enjoy those cookies, darling," she said with a wave, as Richard Straitt, a National Guardsman based in Dundalk, walked to a bus Thursday morning, the first steps of his yearlong deployment to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

"I love ya," she added softly, the words almost lost in the bustle outside the Jerome M. Grollman Armory, where 85 members of the Maryland Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment, had just been given a send-off by Gov. Martin O'Malley and a group of Army brass.

Similar farewells were staged at four of the regiment's other armories across the state — in Elkton, Frederick, Silver Spring and Towson — as more than 440 Guard members embarked on their deployment to Egypt, a mission unconnected to the recent overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak or the roiling conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. But, the governor suggested, that does not necessarily mean there won't be difficulties.

"You go to Egypt at an interesting time, as its citizens begin to write the next chapter in their history," O'Malley said in his prepared remarks. "The changes in their government may present challenges to your assignment that previous deployments did not face."

The governor said he was confident that the troops would "rise to any challenges that may present themselves."

Even if the Sinai peacekeeping mission — a legacy of the 1978 Camp David accords, which established peace between Israel and Egypt — means relatively benign tasks like manning observation posts and checkpoints alongside soldiers from Colombia and Fiji, the unrest elsewhere in the Middle East still raised concerns at the departure ceremonies.

"The shifting political environment will require more diligence and caution," said Col. Sean M. Casey, the Maryland National Guard's chief of staff, who addressed 88 departing soldiers at the Towson Armory. "You are deploying to an area that was peaceful a few months ago but is not so much today. We ask you to keep the peace that has been there for 30 years. Stay focused. Never let your guard down."

Nancy Myers, who was bidding farewell to her 23-year-old son, Eric Braun, at the Dundalk ceremony, dabbed at her eyes as she expressed her concern that events in the Middle East might require that her son and his comrades be summoned to help. Braun's family was told as much before his departure, she said.

"If something starts up in Cairo again — it's been pretty hot there — they might have to go to Cairo," Myers said, adding that the uncertainty is likely to last for the entire 12-month deployment. "It all depends on what goes on over there."

Initially, at least, the Guards' sojourn is likely to be relatively pleasant. Their camp is next to the Red Sea and just north of the town of Sharm el-Sheikh, a popular resort to which Mubarak fled last month after stepping down. The town boasts golf courses, casinos and scuba-diving clubs.

Sharm el-Sheikh and the rest of the peninsula was captured by Israel in 1967 and returned to Egypt in 1979 under the peace agreement. "It's a nice place," said Staff Sgt. John Cross at the Dundalk armory, who recalled that the Maryland regiment had sent 400 troops to the Red Sea camp in 1995. Cross, who was not being deployed Thursday, said his two stints in Iraq "have ruined any desire for me to go to the beach and sit in the sand."

In July 2005, a series of explosions rocked the resort town and killed almost 100 people.

For mothers like Iris Straitt, the prospect of her son's deployment to some hot spot like Libya — unlikely because President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops there — was not remotely daunting.

"If they go, they will be well-trained, and they will be willing to go," said Straitt, who plans to help care for her 2-month-old granddaughter, Olivia, while Olivia's father is away.

At the Towson ceremony, the Rev. Lisa Bandel-Sparks of Davidsonville United Methodist Church challenged the soldiers and their families "to be flexible in the midst of unknown variables."

Cynthia Fichthorn set a clock in her Cockeysville home to Indiana time — the troops will train there for a few weeks before heading for the Sinai — and another to Egypt's. She told her husband, Steve, who was leaving on his second deployment in 18 months, to call any time.

"We just went through Iraq together," she said. "We will get through this one, and we will communicate every way we can."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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