Pvt. Matthew Gillespie joined the Georgia National Guard’s 48th Brigade a couple of months ago when he learned that his wife, Sgt. Alyce Gillespie, would soon be shipped out for her second tour of duty overseas.
“When I found out she was going to be deployed, I joined myself just so I could be with her,” he said.
She turned to her husband and smiled Wednesday afternoon.
“Tell me that’s not the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard,” she said.
That bittersweet feeling was prevalent Wednesday in downtown Macon as hundreds of people lined First and Poplar streets along Rosa Parks Square to watch the parade of soldiers march to City Hall, where Macon, Bibb and state elected officials awaited to see them off. Those troops are headed to Afghanistan to help train Afghan soldiers and police officers.
Most of the people who showed up Wednesday to support the troops wore yellow ribbons and clothing as a sign of support, and waved flags and displayed handmade signs to thank them for their service.
“To the members of the 48th Brigade, we are grateful for your service, proud of your service and inspired by your service,” Macon Mayor Robert Reichert told the crowd. “We are aware of, but cannot fully comprehend, your level of sacrifice. Our appreciation extends to your families as well.”
Gov. Sonny Perdue noted that it was unusual for a governor to deploy his National Guard unit twice overseas. After his speech thanking the troops for their service, Perdue choked up with emotion as he described deployment decisions as one of the hardest of his duties.
“These are Georgia citizens,” he said. “It’s tough knowing where they are headed. The willingness to serve in that kind of environment, they might not have realized what was to come when they first joined, but they are stepping up and doing what it takes.”
Perdue told the crowd “this is always a chilling moment for me. I’m always moved by this. It’s always inspired me, the courage of the citizen soldier.”
Several representatives of the brigade also addressed the crowd, including Brig. Gen. Maria Britt, commander of the Georgia National Guard; Brig. Gen. Larry Dudney, commander of Joint Task Force Phoenix; Col. Lee Durham, commander of the 48th; and Capt. John Avera, an officer in the brigade.
“This is just incredible and inspirational,” Britt told the crowd. “These soldiers are about to go off and do some tough work, but work that has to be done.”
Dudney called the occasion “bittersweet,” noting it wasn’t too long ago that a similar send-off was given to the 48th when it was heading to Iraq.
This time, the mission will be one of training Afghan soldiers and policemen to protect their borders rather than seeking out the enemy, as the 48th did in Iraq. Dudney assured the crowd that the brigade would have all the resources it would need, noting that it had received between $120 million and $130 million in equipment last year.
Durham echoed that sentiment before the parade arrived.
“This is the best-trained brigade that’s ever been sent into harm’s way,” Durham said. “It’s the best-lead brigade, the best-equipped ... this is the best-equipped brigade in the Army.”
Some of the 48th’s battalions already are in the process of being shipped overseas. The 148 Battalion’s Company A was honored Tuesday with a parade in Dublin before shipping overseas, and Companies B and C will be honored today with a parade in Forsyth before they leave.
The bulk of the 48th will head to Indiana for additional training that will last about 45 days, Durham said. They will ship overseas in June and stay in Afghanistan for about 10 months, he said. About 2,500 troops will represent the 48th there.
The soldiers said they’re feeling a sense of excitement and nervousness as they prepare to deploy overseas to serve their country. Matthew Gillespie said that while it’s good that he can serve with his wife, he’s most concerned about her well-being.
“It’s probably a little bit of both (excitement and nerves),” he said. “I’m nervous about her.”
But Alyce Gillespie, who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, said if the 48th does its job well and trains the Afghan soldiers effectively, it could mean fewer deployments for U.S. troops in the future.
“It’s a great mission,” she said. “This could help deployments for U.S. troops. If we train them effectively, we can finally come home.”