State News

Thousands bid farewell as National Guard brigade heads to Iraq

Posted April 14, 2009 4:01 a.m. EDT
Updated April 14, 2009 6:51 p.m. EDT

— Thousands of people packed the Crown Coliseum Tuesday to say goodbye to one of the last combat units headed to Iraq.

Nearly six years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, friends and family members bid farewell to about 3,800 members of the North Carolina National Guard's 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team.

"There are 9.5 million people in this state who are mighty, mighty grateful for what you do," Gov. Beverly Perdue said. "You answered the call from America to serve in global missions, and yet when I pick up the phone because of an emergency here in North Carolina, you come and answer that phone call (too)."

Secretary of the Army Pete Geren noted the brigade also deployed to Iraq in 2004, when it spent more than a year overseas.

"In the mean time, you've responded to our nation's calls all over this country. You answered our nation's call (after) Hurricane Katrina (and) Hurricane Hannah," Geren said.

Sgt. Billy Southern is making his first deployment with the brigade.

"It's important for every soldier," Southern said as he held his young daughter. "I've wanted to be in the military my whole life. I've been in (the National Guard) almost 14 years now, and I finally get to do my job."

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey and members of Congress also praised the brigade, dubbed "Old Hickory," during the two-hour ceremony.

The brigade is headquartered in Clinton and includes a battalion from West Virginia and a company from Colorado. The part-time soldiers spent the past several weeks undergoing intensive training at Fort Irwin, Calif.

"You have to make sacrifices sometimes," Spc. Aaron Gross said. "Our families are proud of us, and you've got to do what you've got to do."

Spc. Justin Davis said the deployment would mark the first time he and his new wife have been separated.

"She's doing good. Once the breaking news got to her, after three or four months it got better," Davis said.

So many people tried to attend the ceremony that scores of families were shut out and had to watch the ceremony on video screens in the neighboring Expo Center. The coliseum has a seating capacity of 9,600.

"If you know that you have 4,000 soldiers coming, you know there's going to be family members coming with those soldiers. Why don't you get a bigger building?" well-wisher Brittney Fields said.

Those who made it inside the coliseum held up signs that said "Go With Our Love" and "We'll Miss You Daddy."

Capt. Jeff Cashion, a Charlotte police officer and the father to Taylor, 6, and Jeffrey, 8, will make his first deployment.

"It's been busy, very busy the last four months training, and busy on the home front, getting everybody prepared to go," Cashion said.

Kristina Cashion said she's still trying to get her mind around the idea of not having her husband around for a year.

"It's one that I never thought I'd experience, but we're so proud and happy and sad," she said. "It's all of these emotions at the same time."

Sgt. Spencer Wells' wife drove from Colorado to see him off. The Denver-area business consultant and the father of two boys was making his first deployment.

"I don't think you can every be 100 percent prepared. I think it's day by day, and you take it in small steps," Wells said.

President Barack Obama has ordered most U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, meaning the N.C. National Guard unit will be among the last to make a one-year deployment.

Members of the 82nd Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team also will deploy overseas in the coming weeks. The team is headed to Afghanistan as part of Obama's move to increase the U.S. presence there.

The troops, who are training in Louisiana, spent 15 months in Afghanistan during a previous deployment.