More than 100 Tennessee Army National Guard soldiers from the 252nd Military Police Company left Cleveland Friday morning for an eventual deployment to the Middle East.
The company, which is based out of armories in Cleveland and Oneida, was given an official send-off from the armory on Dalton Pike.
The company of 127 military police personnel was on its way to New Jersey to receive extra training at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst before overseas deployment.
Master Sgt. Edward Cook, who is the head of operations for the company, said he does not know how long the area guardsmen will be there for training, but he said their orders include deployments to Kuwait and Afghanistan.
Families, friends and strangers who simply wanted to show their support filled the local armory for a breakfast before the National Guardsmen had to leave.
Capt. Chris Martinson, the company’s commander, and guest U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann gave brief remarks thanking the soldiers for their willingness to serve.
The main room of the armory was humming with activity as those in attendance had breakfast.
Some soldiers were there with large family groups, while others lingered around the edges of the room where bags sat ready to be loaded onto the buses that would take them away later.
Those getting ready to leave the Cleveland armory Friday had arrived with a variety of experiences and perspectives on what it meant to say goodbye to loved ones.
Cook said this will be his fourth international deployment with the Army National Guard since he first enlisted in 1981.
“The first time, it was pretty hard,” Cook said.
However, his said his family, including his 12-year-old twin daughters, have gotten more adjusted to the military lifestyle as time has passed.
He said deployment is a possibility every soldier is faced with when they join the National Guard.
“What we do is train for what we are going to do now,” Cook said. “We’re going to serve our country.”
Cook said his decision to join was one he would still make today because he is proud to serve his country by working to help protect it and its interests here and abroad.
Spc. Tevin Burton was getting ready to deploy for the very first time after having joined two years ago.
“I’m excited,” he said. “Not everybody gets the chance to go ... support a mission like this.”
He said he came from a family with a strong military tradition; 17 members of his family have served.
Burton said his military service was a source of pride for him and his family, though leaving is “bittersweet.”
“No one just wants to pack up and leave their everyday lives,” Burton said. “But it’s for a purpose.”
Burton stressed that, while he does not know what to expect upon his deployment, he is confident the training he and his colleagues have received so far and will get more of in New Jersey will help them do the best they can with whatever they are asked to do.
“I won’t say I know what to expect, but I’m prepared,” Burton said.
Sgt. William Johnson was getting ready for his second international deployment in eight years of service.
While acknowledging that there might be some tearful goodbyes for some of the soldiers later that day, he said he felt like the training and experience had also prepared him for his duties.
Johnson said he had actually said his goodbyes to family a week prior to avoid the emotional departure, explaining it was “better that way.”
As he is getting ready for deployment, he said he likes to focus more on the positives than the potential negatives.
“To me, it’s like a celebration,” Johnson said. “I get to go off and serve my country.”
After the breakfast, soldiers and their supporters made their way from the armory to a nearby church parking lot so the men and women in uniform could board three large charter buses to begin the day’s journey.
The crowd included people like Dena Grant, who was volunteering with the Family Readiness Group, a group composed of National Guard family members and supporters who had decorated the room where the breakfast was held.
Mac McMullen, senior ride captain for the Chattanooga Area Patriot Guard Riders, was there with a group of more than 20 motorcycle riders there to escort the troops.
After reaching the lot where the buses were parked, the guardsmen began loading their bags into the cargo holds before seizing some extra moments with their loved ones.
The crowd that had earlier hummed with the sound of happy conversations was filled with more solemn ones as tears began to fall.
Couples kissed and lingered in their embraces as if they could put the world them on pause for just a few moments. A young girl squeezed her father’s neck tightly as he kneeled down for a hug before he had to go. Parents spoke to their sons and daughters with concern lining their faces.
Filing into formation for a roll call, the soldiers received folders with information about their assignments.
As they were getting ready to board, the goodbyes continued.
Somewhere in the crowd, a child’s sad-sounding voice cried, “Mommy!”
A woman who had just watched her guardsman board his bus, tapped the arm of a soldier who did not have anyone with him as he walked by to board his own.
“Soldier, has anyone given you a hug today?” she asked.
When he replied “no,” the two strangers shared a quick hug.
“Everyone needs a hug today,” she said.
A company leader gave a shout for all the soldiers to board, and the buses made their way to the road.
Escorted by vehicles from the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office and Bradley County Fire and Rescue, along with the motorcyclists, they traveled away as others stayed behind.
Supporters lined the road in front of the armory waving their continued goodbyes, some waving American flags with one hand while clutching tissues in the other.
After a ride to airport in Chattanooga, the local guardsmen were going to board planes to New Jersey, where they will train before going overseas.
The exact details of what they will be doing when they get there is a matter that is being kept confidential for security reasons, Cook said.
The group will be assisting with military efforts that have already begun as part of “Operation Enduring Freedom,” according to the Tennessee Department of Military.
The department’s records show more than 28,000 Tennessee Army and Air National Guard personnel have been deployed to Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001.