Dublin gives rousing send-off to Guard unit

DUBLIN -- Millard Whittle wasn’t going to miss Tuesday’s send-off for members of Dublin’s National Guard unit.

As the 99-year-old Dublin man held an American flag in one hand and balanced himself on a lawn chair with the other, he swallowed and tried to find words that didn’t come easily.

“It’s what these men and women stand for,” said Whittle, fighting to hold back tears. “They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t love their country.”

Whittle and about 200 others attended a send-off ceremony at the Market on Madison for 93 members of Company A of the 148th Support Battalion in Georgia’s 48th Infantry Brigade. As the unit prepares for deployment to Afghanistan, the community showed its support for the soldiers by waving flags and posting signs such as “God Bless You” and “We Support Our Troops.”

After the ceremony, the company boarded transport vehicles for a parade along the city’s major thoroughfares, which were lined with thousands of flag-waving well-wishers, high school bands and yards and yards of yellow ribbons and bows.

“It makes you feel proud that you have the community backing you,” said 35-year-old Spc. Frank Horne of Macon.

“A lot of pride,” Sgt. James Drury of Dublin said later.

“The over 700 members of the Dublin-Laurens County Chamber of Commerce wanted to show the brave men and women of the 148th Support Battalion and the whole 48th Brigade that we are sincerely proud of their commitment and sacrifice for our great country,” said Spence Mullis, chairman of the chamber board and president and CEO of Morris Bank. “They are sacrificing their time and their families for our security and freedom and we must recognize, remember and pray for their safe return.”

Accoring to Capt. Charles Newton, Company A is expected to leave Friday for Camp Atterbury, Indiana, where the unit will receive about two months of additional training before deployment to Afghanistan in late June or July for about 12 months. Company A is the battalion’s largest unit. It will be responsible for logistical operations, transporting fuel, water, ammunition and other supplies.

More than 60 members of Company A have already left for additional training. Hank Copeland is one of them. The 38-year-old couldn’t be at Tuesday’s send-off, but his mother, Connie, attended the event for him and others.

Sitting on a green iron bench, Connie Copeland held onto her crutches, a familiar accessory since suffering an injury to her leg. Tuesday’s ceremony marked the fourth send-off she has attended.

“I have to come support them,” she said as tears welled in her eyes.

That support is shown through sending letters and care packages, Copeland said.

“Some of these soldiers don’t get anything from home,” she said. “We need to let them know people are thinking of them.”

The deployment will be the first for Staff Sgt. Lester McCloud of Eastman. He said he has relied on his faith and the family bond that exists among the soldiers to keep him strong and focused.

“It’s our faith,” he said. “We’ve bonded like a family.”

Supporting the troops also means supporting the families left behind. Staff Sgt. Chandalier Rivera of Glenwood encouraged people to offer a friendly smile and a kind word.

“It means a lot knowing people are praying and supporting us, but also supporting the families left behind,” she said. “That would be a great help to us.”

Brigadier Gen. Maria Britt urged the families and friends of the soldiers “not to suffer in silence.”

“Let us help you hold down the fort,” she said.

Kendra McCleery of Jackson attended the send-off with her 2-year-old son Isaiah. The support of family and friends will help her endure the more than 12 months that her husband, Sgt. Brian McCleery, is away.

“Family support is the biggest thing,” she said.

Expressions of thanks and gratitude filled the air. But some of the strongest memories members of Company A will carry them were expressed with actions, not words. Some supporters shook their hands. Others offered an emotional embrace. The faces of children from nearby preschools beamed wide smiles.

Georgia Sen. Ross Tolleson and Rep. DuBose Porter presented a state flag to Lt. Col. Perry Carter, commander of the 148th. He lauded the love of country exhibited by members of Alpha Company.

“We are relying on you to get us through this next year,” Carter told those who had gathered. “Pray for us daily. That’s what will get us through.”

Dublin Mayor Phil Best presented Newton with a shillelagh, a symbol of the Emerald City. Best said uttering the words “thank you” does not seem adequate for the sacrifices made by the soldiers and their families. Newton praised members of Company A for their commitment, saying it is time for them to shine.

“Now it’s our time to realize the impact we will make on history,” Newton said.