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Pa. unit heads for Iraq

January 02, 2009|By DON AINES

WAYNESBORO, Pa. -- In a ritual as old as warfare, the soldiers of C Troop, 2nd Squadron of the 104th Cavalry bid farewell Friday to parents, spouses and children to return to Fort Dix, N.J., before their deployment to Iraq.

One last hug. One last kiss. A few words before parting.

The sentiments have been the same for years, but the technology has changed, with families taking video and soldiers making cell phone calls and text messaging those who could not be present.

"Are you warm enough?" a mother asked her soldier son as he prepared to board the bus.

Sgt. Kenneth Branch of Martinsburg, W.Va., a Maryland correctional officer in civilian life, was with his fiancée, Vera Legrant; mother, Irma Branch; sister, Joyce King; and daughter, Shawniece Branch, for a luncheon thrown in the soldiers' honor at the VFW Post in Waynesboro.

"It's kind of bittersweet. It was a beautiful holiday. All of my children were here," Irma Branch said of Christmas.

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Branch and his family said they take some comfort in the fact that U.S. casualties have declined sharply in the past year.

"It looks good," Kenneth Branch said. "It just takes time."

"We're going to be strong," his mother said.

"We're going to support him in prayer," Legrant said.

Some of those bidding goodbye have seen it from another viewpoint.

"It's different from my perspective. I was always the guy ... getting under way," said Ken Wenzel, a retired U.S. Navy captain. He recalled returning home from one deployment when his son, John, was very young.

"I can remember you as a baby coming back from Guam," Wenzel told Capt. John Wenzel. His son had little memory of him and "he didn't want any part of me," the father said.

There were a lot of young children at the luncheon and the armory, including the first child of Sgt. Brad Dively of Lykens, Pa.

"He didn't want to let daddy go for the last 12 days," Crystal Dively said of her 2-month-old son, Jason.

Sgt. Eric Varner of Chambersburg, Pa., was accompanied by his wife, Corrie, and their three sons -- Nicholas, 6, Chase, 4, and Dylan, 3.

"It went too fast," Corrie said of the holiday. "We haven't seen each other in the past three months."

The Pennsylvania National Guard Stryker brigade has been in training in Mississippi and Louisiana, and only will be at Fort Dix for a short time before deploying, Capt. Wenzel said.

"Anxious. I look forward to it," Spc. Jeremiah Carbaugh of Greencastle, Pa., said of the deployment a few minutes before boarding the bus.

"Also anxious to come home safe and sound and be with his family and start his own family," said his fiancé, Heather Keller. They were engaged on New Year's Eve, she said.

"It's tough. I'm very proud of him, though. I'm very proud of all of them and the support from the community" Kim McCray of Chambersburg said as a large group of family was saying goodbye to her son, Pfc. Mitch Baldwin.

Charles Nitterhouse VFW Post 1599 in Chambersburg spearheaded the effort to bring the soldiers home for the holidays, getting more than $10,000 in donations to pay for transportation and other costs, said George Kohler, a past post commander. A church in Hancock donated $270, and many individuals made anonymous contributions, he said.

"The 104th is actually from Chambersburg, but they're training (in Waynesboro) because their armory is being renovated," Kohler said.

The unit is part of a contingent of 5,000 soldiers from Pennsylvania being deployed this month, the most since World War II, Kohler said.

That support of the troops will continue, including care packages that will go out in March in time for St. Patrick's Day, Kohler said. Every three months or so, unit members will receive gifts to make their lives in Iraq a bit easier, right through next Christmas if necessary, he said.

The VFW still is seeking monetary donations, along with donations of toiletries, nonperishable foods, stationery and other goods to include in the packages.

Looking around the Waynesboro VFW, packed with more than 200 soldiers, family and volunteers, Kohler thought back to the more muted send-off he received in an earlier war.

"It's not like in Vietnam when I went away ... There was no one there but my parents," he said.

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