Mere hours before the death of Osama bin Laden was announced by President Obama, family and friends said farewell to 170 soldiers from the 1138th Transportation Company headed to Afghanistan at a ceremony held at Mehlville High School.
The National Guard soldiers, headquartered at Jefferson Barracks, leave Monday and will serve one year in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Gov. Jay Nixon and other elected officials spoke words of encouragement and gratitude at the farewell ceremony for the company.
“Without the Guard, America could not get the job done,” Nixon said. “I want you all to know that you have the full support of the people of the Show-Me State.”
The 170 soldiers have been undergoing training for more than a year in preparation for Afghanistan, said the troop’s commander, Capt. Jamie Melchert. They depart Monday morning for a month of training at Fort Bliss in Texas before a 22-hour journey to Afghanistan.
"We'll be transporting goods that the coalition forces need—food, water, repair parts, ammunition,” Melchert said. “We'll also be helping out the host nation, helping out the Afghanistan government. If a particular town needs supplies to build a road network or something, we can help with that too.”
Melchert said the unit will be doing their own convoy security due to the country’s insurgents. Soldiers have undergone weapons and combatives training, based off the Ultimate Fighting Championship-style of fighting and have had extensive driver training.
“In a combat theater, you have to consider threats by the insurgents and a very primitive road network in Afghanistan,” he said. ”It's just a dangerous place, a much more dangerous place.”
The departure ceremony began and concluded with prayers for the soldiers and their safety and also recognized the oldest and youngest company members. A deployment ceremony tradition, the oldest member was presented with a U.S. flag, while the youngest was given the Missouri state flag.
The youngest soldier going to Afghanistan with the troop, Pfc. Jim Rule, said he had confidence in the older members of his unit.
“I’ve got a lot of experience here with me,” he said. “They all have excellent leadership. I’m a little nervous, but am excited about the new experiences.”
The daughter of oldest serving member, 1st Sgt. Robert Wendell, has seen her dad depart three times to serve overseas.
"I think this is going to be a different situation this time,” La Tisha Helming said. “It’s a lot more dangerous over there and he’s got kids and grandkids; it’s just sad.”
While this tour will be the second and third for several soldiers, it will be the first for Johnathan Lubinski.
“He’s ready to go,” said his father, Mickey Lubinski. “I’m nervous enough for the both of us, but he’s ready.”
More than one speaker at the ceremony acknowledged the struggle of the families that soldiers leave behind.
“The strength of the unit comes from the strength of those staying behind,” said Col. William Ward, commanding officer of the 110th Maneuver and Enhancement Brigade.
Sherri Kent, whose husband Sgt. Will Kent is departing, is worried about communication on what will be his second tour of duty.
“I don’t know how communication is going to work out, when and if we’re going to get to talk,” she said. “I was working last time and now am a stay-at-home mom. We’re used to spending a lot of time together, so this one will be harder. We’re not just husband and wife, but best friends.”