48th gets emotional sendoff

mstucka@macon.comDecember 1, 2013 

Abby Walker knows National Guard deployments can be a time to split or start families. The captain, a company commander from Glennville, started a family with Maj. Robert Walker. Sunday’s sendoff ceremony in Macon marks her second deployment, and his fourth.

“I went to Iraq 2006-07, and that’s actually where I met him, in Iraq. It’s come full circle now,” she said.

Their two children have been in Iowa since August, when the couple began training; his three children from an earlier marriage are with another relative.

As about 200 soldiers with the Army National Guard’s 48th Brigade Infantry Combat Team got ready for training in Mississippi before deployment in Afghanistan, children stayed close to the comfort of their parents inside a large room at the Edgar H. Wilson Convention Centre.

One mother bounced a camouflage-clad baby on her arms as he shielded his eyes from glaring gymnasium-style lights. In the front row, a veteran of Afghanistan wearing a patch from the International Security Assistance Force held his little boy, who held a milk bottle. Another veteran clutched a boy to his chest as the national anthem played.

Isabel Thompson, of Duluth, carried a flower as she ran next to her father, lights flashing on her little shoes, as he photographed the ceremony before his own deployment. When he introduced himself to a reporter, she crowed his name: “Captain Michael!”

Aiden Rice, 11, carried a sign: “Go dad!! Be safe. -- Aiden”

He and three siblings joined their mother and a grandfather from Ohio to see Maj. Lucas Rice off. A project manager from Powder Springs, Lucas Rice had just started a new job a few weeks ago.

“It’s hard, but it’s what he has to do. He’s helping our country,” Aiden Rice said, as his youthful siblings nodded in agreement.

It wasn’t only children who had a difficult time saying goodbye.

Henritta Brotherson said her sister-in-law was tough, but she’s still worried. She said she’s 4 feet, 11 inches tall, and guessed her sister-in-law -- Sgt. 1st Class Margaret Brotherson, of Macon -- was a couple inches shorter than that, but she’d also been a boxer in an earlier stint with the regular U.S. Army.

Margaret Brotherson said this will be her second deployment with the National Guard to Afghanistan, though she’d also been to Iraq with the U.S. Army. A native of the Virgin Islands, she’s shut down her computer repair business because of the deployment.

The Guard members who left Macon on Sunday are on the way to train in Camp Shelby, Miss. Most will return home for Christmas, but will be in Afghanistan in January.

While many of the soldiers kept children close by, others tried to have quiet moments with spouses. Jamie Knight, of Rome, kept a long embrace with husband Justin, a sergeant; nearby Sydney LaVelle, of Rocky Face, stayed close with her sergeant husband, Daniel. The National Guard wives are supporting each other. LaVelle said she’s been through this before.

“It never gets any better, even if you have to do it over and over again,” she said.

Knight said the emotional toll is overwhelming.

“We try to be supportive of them,” she said. “Try not to cry in front of them.”

Col. Randall Simmons, the brigade commander, said his soldiers will focus on providing security and close things down. The United States is lowering troop levels in Afghanistan.

“We’ll be in more places, and possibly doing more, than ever before,” Simmons said.

The soldiers left on buses, escorted by motorcyclists with the Patriot Guard Riders and police through Macon.

Joey Recker, the brigade’s retired command sergeant major, wore jeans and cowboy boots to see the first deployment of the brigade he won’t be on. Recker said it’s bittersweet to stay home after 28½ years.

“It’s kind of dough after being on every deployment,” Recker said. “If I could put on the uniform tomorrow, I’d be on that bus.”

Maj. Gen. Jim Butterworth, adjutant general of the Georgia National Guard, said he expects this will be 48th Brigade’s last deployment to Afghanistan. The unit’s responsibilities won’t end with Afghanistan.

“There’s always going to be a need for the National Guard,” Butterworth said.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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