Thursday, December 30, 2004

1173rd takes off for Kuwait

After a wait into the early morning, the Virginia Army National Guard soldiers left New Jersey.

McGUIRE AIR FORCE BASE, N.J. - The catchphrase of the night was "Hurry up and wait," repeated often by resigned soldiers bound for the war in Iraq, anxious to get on their plane in hopes they could at last get some sleep.

Staff Sgt. Robert Harrie, 33, of Bowling Green, Va., described the mode of operations as "Getting ready to get ready" after he and other soldiers were told to line up to board buses, then ordered to sit down again.

Though they sat into the wee hours of the morning in an Air Force terminal - almost identical to a civilian terminal, with the exception of the camouflage uniforms and rifles - eventually, their wait did end. By Wednesday morning, all the members of the Virginia Army National Guard's 1173rd Transportation Company had lifted off for Kuwait.

More than half of the company, about 115 soldiers, boarded a chartered commercial airliner about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday. The remainder, about 55, left about 6:30 a.m., said David Moore, a spokesman with the Fort Dix, N.J., public affairs office. The 1173rd's commanding officer, Capt. Mike Waterman, has said the unit will undergo about three more weeks of training in Kuwait before likely being stationed in north-central Iraq.

Based out of Rocky Mount and Martinsville, the 1173rd includes soldiers from other units, including Roanoke's 229th Chemical Company.

One of those soldiers, Sgt. Todd Hancock of Ferrum, joked that he was headed for "a one-year paid vacation" while waiting to check his carry-on bag.

"A tax-free paid vacation," added Chief Warrant Officer Dennis Berry, 42, a Verizon cable technician who lives in Roanoke.


1173rd Company

Hear audio as the local unit prepares to deploy for the Middle East.

Berry was one of many in the company who had nearly been deployed before. He felt that his previous close call will make it a little easier for his family to deal with his absence. "They already kind of know what kind of rhythm, groove on their side they have to do to keep the day-to-day thing going."

Many of the soldiers used the wait in the terminal as an opportunity to call loved ones on cellphones. Spc. Carolyn Kibogy, 25, spoke with her boyfriend in Maryland more than once. "He's having a hard time," she said. Kibogy, who emigrated from Kenya when she was 19, has relatives in Roanoke.

"It's a sad feeling to leave when you don't know what to expect," she said. "I left home and now I'm leaving home again."

Pvt. Earl Ritchie used an Army-issued calling card to talk to his mother in Coeburn. At 19, Ritchie is the youngest soldier in the unit. "Mama ain't too happy" about his going to war, he said.

"I'm nervous but excited," he said. "It's a new start on life, new opportunities. It'll make me mature a lot, that's for sure. I'm gonna do a lot of growing up."

As the dark comedy film "Dogma" played on the big-screen TV, another young soldier, Pfc. Tiffany Barbour, 20, a sophomore at Averett University in Danville, tried to explain the movie's plot to another soldier. "I've seen every Kevin Smith movie," she said. She's a big fan of both Smith's movies and comic books, she said.

Barbour joined the National Guard this year "for college, in all honesty." Because she knew some members of the 1173rd had been deployed before, the company's call to active duty in August caught her by surprise, she said. "I'm not pleased, I won't lie," she said. "I would rather be at school right now, or home with my family."

As the hours rolled past midnight, some of the soldiers took catnaps. Others used computers beside the television to send e-mails.

Upstairs in the cantina, volunteers from the Bordentown, N.J., chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America helped the USO, handing out hot dogs and chili for the departing troops. "We've all been through what they're getting ready to go through, and it's kind of an unspoken camaraderie," said Michael Engi, the chapter's second vice president. He showed off a jacket with the organization's motto: "Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another."

The cantina volunteers watched as the plane that would take the 1173rd overseas pulled in on the tarmac.

Pfc. Malia Dent, 22, of Roanoke watched "Dogma" with Barbour. Delays in boarding the buses meant they got to see the movie through to the end, though both had seen it before.

A mental illness specialist with Fedora & Associates, Dent said she was happy to finally be going overseas. She has wanted to serve her country, she said. "It's something that I've wanted to do, so I could have good stories to tell my grandchildren one day."

The second time the soldiers were told to line up, about 1:30 a.m., it wasn't a false alarm. As they marched out to the waiting buses, staff at the terminal lined up to shake their hands and wish them well. Then the doors closed, and they were gone.

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