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167th Airlift Wing members headed to Iraq

July 26, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- On Saturday, 3 a.m. couldn't get to Berkeley County quickly enough.

A squadron in the West Virginia Air National Guard's 167th Airlift Wing had been training for months for its mission -- serving as military police officers for the Air Force near Baghdad as part of the war in Iraq -- and departure was near.

They had a cookout Friday night and slept at the base.

By Saturday at 2 a.m., they had finished packing and planning. There was nothing left to do but sit, and think, and wait.

None of the security forces squadron will be in Iraq right away. Saturday's flight was to Florida for mission-specific training at Eglin Air Force Base until Aug. 9.

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Thirteen of the 28 members of the squadron who left Saturday will deploy directly from Florida to Iraq -- an advance party of sorts.

Others will come back to Berkeley County -- and wait until the middle or end of August to be deployed.

"We've been preparing for this since October, so now we want to go," said Tech Sgt. David Drawbaugh of Boonsboro.

"At this point, you just want to get on the road," said Chief Master Sgt. John H. Alderton, the wing command chief.

Staff Sgt. Matt Wilson of Martinsburg said he was both excited and nervous, with mixed feelings about missing a lifetime milestone -- the birth of his child. His fiancée, Summer, is due in November.

"It's on your mind a lot," Wilson said.

Keith Holton of Martinsburg got married in April, aware that he would be called up for duty. He said his wife is worried about how often they'll talk.

He'll try to make the best of it.

"It's more motivation than anything," Holton said. "You're in an unsafe place, but you're thinking about something that comforts you."

"It's not just the Guard member that's deployed," said Carrean Klungle of Martinsburg, one of four Family Readiness Group members who showed up Saturday for support. "It's the whole family that's deployed."

Twelve of the 28 people in the squadron are married, Alderton said.

One is a paramedic and several are in law enforcement, including the police chief in Paw Paw, W.Va. Some work full time at the Guard base.

All were urged to break up their deployment time into small, manageable periods they can get through. When Thanksgiving comes, it means Christmas isn't far off.

They expect to be gone until around March 2009.

This will be the first major deployment for many.

But Drawbaugh, a contractor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency who will turn 41 in September, has been through it before.

He's been on six-month deployments to the Middle East and Persian Gulf. The last was in 1995-96, so this will be a new experience for his children, ages 12, 11 and 3.

"They understand what I (am) doing," he said. "They were kind of excited, but sad to see their daddy go away."

Drawbaugh said he set up Skype, a program for phone calls over the Internet, and did a trial run with his family.

While they're away, Guard members will have access to e-mail and might have video teleconferencing. Drawbaugh said that's progress compared to only having letters from home.

However sentimental they might be about leaving, Guard members are confident and ready, Holton said.

"It's awesome," said Deborah Trimble of Hedgesville, W.Va., one of two women in the squadron. "I'm excited. It's something I've never done."

She said she realizes the danger, but added, "I'm an adrenaline-rush type of person."

Asked how Guard members need to adjust mentally, 1st Lt. William Lemon, an operations officer, said, "Rely on your training. Trust your leadership. Be flexible and extremely motivated ... Our mind-set is aggressive defense."

Lemon, a West Virginia State Police trooper who has served in Afghanistan, said his charges are in good hands.

"My number one priority, after taking care of the mission, is taking care of the guys, he said.

Minutes later, in the darkness, the buses pulled away. The waiting was over.

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