Such was the case last week at Ft. Stewart, Georgia. An "advance team" for the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division (3rd ID) shipped off for Iraq. We spent the day with Staff Sgt. Robert Streeper from Philadelphia, PA ( I know where he is today and I know he's smiling: BIG Philadelphia Eagles fan). Sgt. Streeper and wife Wendy, their 7-year old daughter and the Sergeants teenage sister were awake well before 5am. It was a beautiful morning. Full moon, comfortable breeze and barely a cloud in the sky. A great morning to go fishing or play golf with your buddies. But for a 7-year-old girl it simply meant "Daddy is going off to war," and for his wife it meant 12 more months of uncertainty. For the Streeper family this is THEIR 3rd tour of duty in Iraq. As they were leaving the house, Wendy joked "I only cried twice this week, not seven." During their last "good bye," she cried seven days straight.
There's a reason why in the military people say "hurry up and wait." The Streepers did a whole lot of waiting (truth be told no one seemed to mind because it meant families could steal a few more minutes together) In some ways it was like watching an American car being assembled. Sgt. Streeper stood in one line to get his rifle, another line for more supplies. He and the other soldiers even stood in line as they prepared to board their plane. At the end of that all day assembly line stood an American Warrior, well trained, well armed and prepared to do what warriors do.
But before the plane took off, it was time for the long good bye. The military actually schedules the "good byes" early in the day, just so the soldiers and their families can get on with it. Every soldier I spoke with said "departure day" is often the worst day of the deployment. Once they're overseas they're preoccupied with the mission. And the family members back home work to fine a routine so they can stay occupied.
During the good byes we met Ken and Rosa Root from Arkansas. Their son 1st Lt. Brian Root was going off to war for the first time. Their words spoke of pride, but their eyes whispered the pain only a parent can know when your child leaves homes: Multiply that by a thousand and you only begin to understand they anxiety the Root family is feeling now that child is headed into harms way.
Whether it's the first time or the 3rd time, heading to war is a difficult, difficult task. I did not meet a single soldier who didn't feel prepared. Nor did I meet a single relative who wasn't extremely proud. There another "p" word people talked about: prayer.