Guardsmen leave for Iraq

Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Spc. 4 Brian Miller kisses his wife, Jena, goodbye. Also seeing him off were his: grandmother, Judy Norwood of Lewisburg; mother, Kristie Miller; sister, Jessica Liles and her baby, Cadence.

Dozens of Tennessee Army National Guardsmen left Lewisburg by bus Monday afternoon when friends and family saw them off at the Armory on Fayettville Highway, bound for Camp Shelby, Miss.

The soldiers were home for Christmas, courtesy of a chartered coach made available at cost by a Lawrenceburg businessmen who was paid by contributions from relatives, friends and businesses - people who support the troops and their families.

Between now and Feb. 5, the guardsmen will complete their training and final preparation before they deploy to Iraq, according to several soldiers of rank and parents with pull.

Steps are now being taken for a final farewell in nearly five weeks. Some wives plan to drive to the camp. Others are considering a flight.

Then, "It's going to be hard for their families for them to be gone so long," Pat "Nanny" Estes of Petersburg said before a goodbye hug with Chris Evans, 34, of Lewisburg.

"It could be 12-18 months or longer" before the soldiers' return, Estes said. "It depends on what Obama does with this freakin' war."

Evans married Estes' daughter. Now, she says, "He's like a real son, not just an ex-son-in-law."

Despite the divorce, "Chris ate with us Christmas Eve," she said. "And he spent Christmas Day with us."

Evans and a busload of other soldiers arrived at the National Guard Armory here at about 5:45 a.m. on Dec. 23. No public announcement had been made other than to their closest relatives. Most of the soldiers are probably from Marshall County. Others are from surrounding or nearby counties.

Troop movement times and assignments are always fluid, according to Capt. Kevin Levesque of Company G with the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment. The soldiers who left this week are in a convoy security company, but specific assignments change as needed.

The life-changing departure is reflected in the eyes of the relatives like Paige Foss who married Patrick Glenn Foss on Oct. 19. That day, the stay-at-home mom knew this day would come since she married a full-time guardsman and made a blended family. "I have a daughter. He has two sons." The children are in school. She intends to drive to Camp Shelby in February.

Pride in service was evident among the hundreds of people at the armory Monday, but the moments were closer to feelings for home.

"I love and I'll miss my family," said Spc. 4 Brian Miller whose second wedding anniversary was on Nov. 24. He and Jena have been together six years. "He knows he's coming back," she said.

Sgt. Maj. Jared McKnight of Lewisburg agreed that Monday was a great day, a milestone, but he added: "I'm ready to get it over with. The faster we get over there, the faster we get back."

His Christmas present was being home with his family.

Steve Carter of Lawrenceburg was the bus driver for First Class Charter, the bus company in Lawrenceburg hired by the families. He said normally a charter bus trip like this one would cost about $4,900, but the owner, Bill Adams, said the fee would be $2,800 plus the cost of Carter's overnight stay.

During a Christmas Eve interview at the Lewisburg home of retired Col. Larry McKnight of the Tennessee National Guard Association, several of the larger contributors were named as making the bus charter possible. They include: $2,500 from Marshall Medical Center; $500 from First Commerce Bank; $100 from First Farmers and Merchants Bank; and $500 from Lewisburg Police Chief Chuck Forbis.

"We can't thank them enough. The support we've seen from the community is overwhelming. You can't be in uniform in these parts without, for example, having your meal paid for and not know who did it," said Command Sgt. Maj. Darren Tracy McDow, 39, of Culleoka.

Col. McKnight says McDow is the youngest sergeant major in the Tennessee Army National Guard. McDow has served in Afghanistan and is among the troops who left Lewisburg for Camp Shelby.

McKnight's other son, Travis, deployed in 2005 with McDow so the McDows and McKnights are close family friends.

"This is our headquarters for our forward support company," McDow says with his wife, Carol, by his side in Col. McKnight's living room.

It's said that Carol McDow can't wait for her sergeant major's deployment so she can redecorate their home. She doesn't dispute there are plans, and Tracy McDow says he looks forward to see what she'll have done.

This will be his first deployment to Iraq. He's going with guardsmen who've been there.

Jared and Tessa McKnight have a 2-year-old daughter, Jillian. She was born in Korea during another deployment.

Like other soldiers, the McKnights and McDows appreciate the sentiments expressed by the community.

"It makes you feel glad that the people support you," Jared McKnight said.

It's in contrast to observations made by Pat Estes decades before she became known as "Nanny" in Petersburg.

When the troops came back from Vietnam, many people treated them "like they'd been on a vacation," Estes said. "Nobody acknowledged them for what they done for us."

She had "a lot of school friends who went to and returned from Vietnam," Estes said. "No blood kin, but they were like family, and these guys are giving their lives and their families for us."

Monday afternoon, next to the First Class Charter coach, Spc. 4 Stuart Rudy was saying goodbye to his wife, Brandy, as he loaded his guitar into the storage area below the bus seats.

Sgt. Jeremy Mitchell was another guitar-packin' guardsman.

Tennessee Highway Patrol Trooper Will Spivey drove the state police cruiser to escort the motor coach from the armory and south on I-65 to the Alabama state line.

After the troops left the parking lot and the armory, women wept and small children cried.