CARBONDALE — Hundreds of family members, friends and people who just wanted to show support gathered inside a basketball arena here Tuesday at Southern Illinois University to bid farewell to 400 soldiers headed to Afghanistan.
More than 18 years into the longest war in United States history, deployment ceremonies such as these are part of the norm — yet still a wake-up call for those who are going. They and their families have been on notice for months.
“We are ready for it to start, so we can start counting down the days,” said Samantha Yates, 24, of Akin, Illinois, a tiny town near Rend Lake. Her husband is deploying.
She’s most concerned about their 4-year-old daughter, Aubrey, the elder of two children.
“I am trying to let her know that Daddy is going away for work, and it’s going to be a long time, not just 9 to 5,” she said.
The “citizen soldiers” are part of the Illinois Army National Guard, 2nd Battalion, 130th Infantry Regiment, which is headquartered in Marion, and has four armories in West Frankfort, Effingham, Litchfield and Mt. Vernon.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker told them that they represent the “very best of this state.”
“The fundamental strength of the National Guard is that it is a force of ordinary citizens committed to extraordinary work,” he said.
In a typical year, people in the Guard train two weeks in the summer and one weekend a month, while maintaining civilian jobs as laborers, correctional officers, mechanics, college students, plumbers, farmers, teachers and many other professions. Their lives occasionally get put on hold to respond to natural disasters and deploy overseas.
“It’s definitely a disruption for everyone,” said Capt. Edward Worman, 32, a public defender in Clayton, who recently had about 150 cases pending. “But they are very motivated, excited to serve.”
Worman oversees about a fourth of the soldiers as commander of Bravo Company, which trains in Effingham. His father and grandfather were company commanders in the same regiment. Though he’s been in the guard about a decade, this will be his first deployment.
“I’ve always wanted to be in the infantry,” he said.
After so many years of training, he and many others look forward to activating.
“It’s always been a goal of mine to be able to deploy, to support the operations that are going on over there,” said Capt. David Adams, 30, of Kirkwood. “We joined to execute a mission.”
For his part, that means leaving behind at job working with at-risk youth in the Pattonville School District, and his wife, whom he met when he was an active duty soldier based in Germany.
“She is obviously sad that I am leaving,” said Adams, commander of Alpha Company. “She understands the job and the different duties that come up.”
The oldest soldier deploying is in his early 50s. More of them are like Private 1st Class Richard Grams of Arcola, who was 2 on Sept. 11, 2001. The subsequent war in Afghanistan has been going on most of his life.
“I am just trying to do my part,” said Grams, who has just been focusing on the deployment in recent months.
A few of the soldiers are women.
“There are a lot of mixed emotions, but I am ready to go,” said Spc. Gregoria Rafael, 20, of Alto Pass. She is going to work as a clerk in the mailroom for the deployment. In regular life, she sells mattresses.
Her mother, Maria Rafael, originally from Michoacán, Mexico, said in Spanish: “I feel very sad because I have never been so far away from my daughter before.”
Brig. Gen. Richard Neely, the Adjutant General of the Illinois National Guard, told the crowd that families play a key part of the mission.
“You are an extension of the National Guard. You are an extension of the national defense,” Neely said. “And as somebody who has deployed multiple times, I couldn’t have done it without my family.”
Larry Altermott, 72, a former police chief from Benld, near Litchfield, listened from up high in the arena. There weren’t ceremonies like this when he went to Vietnam in the late 1960s as a young Marine. Now, his 22-year-old grandson is deploying.
“I just hate it that he’s going,” Altermott said. “He’s looking forward to it. You know how kids are.”
He was concerned that the troops would “lose their innocence.” But he said nobody could have talked him out of going to Vietnam when he was young.
After training for about a month at Fort Bliss in Texas, the 130th will serve overseas for about nine to 10 months. Though missions can change, they are expected to deploy to Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. Helmand and neighboring Kandahar Province are the heartland of the Taliban, said Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of “Little America,” a 2012 book about foreign involvement there.
Chandrasekaran said Helmand is reminiscent of the 15th century. The population mainly lives and is sustained by agriculture along the banks of the Helmand River, which cuts through the province. Go beyond the river and moonscape takes over.
“It is barren, arid desert as far as the eye can see,” he said. “It’s a world away from Kabul.”
While many combat troops have been killed and injured in southern Afghanistan, he said the mission isn’t nearly as risky as it once was. U.S. troops are now there to help train, assist and advise Afghan security forces.
“Our presence there is a key-force multiplier,” he said.
The Department of Defense no longer publicizes troop levels. According to NBC, in November there were about 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In April 2014, there were 33,500.
When to get out of Afghanistan has been a topic of conversation for years.
“We as Americans should hope for a future in which the Afghans can fully protect their country without the need of United States or other international forces on the ground,” said Chandrasekaran, formerly of The Washington Post.
“We also have to recognize that this is going to take some time. We have to continue to ask ourselves is the deployment of about 10,000 U.S. forces at any given time a worthy cost to prevent the Taliban from getting stronger and to prevent ISIS and remnants of Al-Qaeda from trying to regenerate in that part of the world.”