CAMP RIPLEY -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty called them "American Patriots."
But to family members of the 145 soldiers in Minnesota Army National Guard's Company C, 142nd Engineer Battalion, based at Camp Ripley, they're simply known as, "Dad," "Sister," or "Son."
Tissue boxes were strategically placed at the entrance of Camp Ripley's recreation center Wednesday where more than 600 family members and friends attended a deployment ceremony for 152 Guard members.
It was a time for military and political leaders to energize the departing troops and their families with passionate speeches about pride, patriotism and defeating Saddam Hussein.
But above all, it was a time to say goodbye, to share that last kiss, the last embrace and the last tearful but unwavering smile and final wave as the soldiers boarded the buses to face the unknown.
Seven of the soldiers were members of the Roseville-based 798th Transportation Detachment who were deployed Wednesday to serve stateside. The remaining 145 soldiers deployed Wednesday were flown to Fort Carson, Colo., to prepare for deployment for up to a year of active duty in Southwest Asia.
Minnesota's Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Eugene Andreotti said Wednesday that the soldiers know where in Southwest Asia they are going to be sent as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, but that the information was classified.
Sue Cameron, Breezy Point, said the departure ceremony was comforting to her. She felt more assured that her son Spc. Joshua Cameron was going to be safe.
Cameron, 23, Breezy Point, wanted to marry his fiancee Dawn Stately before he left Wednesday, but there simply wasn't enough time to plan the wedding. He leaves behind Stately and their 10-month-old daughter, Hayden.
Stately is confident that Hayden will recognize her dad when he returns.
"I'll be showing her a lot of pictures of him so she's going to remember him," said Stately.
A brief encounter with Pawlenty meant a lot to a Brainerd family affected by the deployment.
Sgt. Kyle Pohl of Brainerd told Pawlenty that he and his wife, Suzi, lost their 2-year-old daughter, Mearan, last October. Pohl told the governor his three boys, ages 5-12, were worried that their father, too, was going to die.
Pawlenty stopped, bent down until he was eye level with Pohl's sons and told them, "Listen here, boys. Your dad is a hero and he's coming home."
If the governor said it, then it is so.
Pohl's 12-year-old son Gavin was excited to show the photograph of him and Pawlenty to his classmates today at school. It was proof, he said, that he met the governor.
The past week became days, the days became hours and with only minutes before the soldiers left for the buses to catch the troop transport planes to Colorado, they stood at ease side-by-side in four lines against the wall of the recreation center.
Then there was silence throughout the room, broken only by sobbing. The tissues, it appeared, came in handy.
Family members left behind embraced one another, holding onto their children and grandchildren while they stared back at the soldiers as if attempting to memorize their faces before they marched away together.
Some soldiers carried pillows for their plane ride to Fort Carson, Colo.
Others carried more personal items.
With tears streaming down her face, Pvt. Jaquelle Sevigny of Little Falls held onto a stuffed teddy bear. Sevigny was one of 37 college students in the unit who are deferring their education to serve their country.
Sharon Pohl of Pequot Lakes, Kyle Pohl's mother, waved to every bus filled with soldiers as they left the recreation center parking lot for the airstrip. Tears froze to her face as she tried to spot her son through the bus windows.
After the soldiers left the facility, many families drove to a roadway alongside the runway to wait until the C-130 troop transport planes disappeared over the horizon.
Something tells me these same families will be parked along the same roadway next year, watching and waiting for the planes filled with their loved ones to reappear in the sky once again.
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