Families and friends of Maryland Army National Guard soldiers gathered Saturday morning at the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground to honor and say goodbye to their husbands, wives, brothers, sisters and all of the important people in their lives before they deployed to Iraq Sunday.
Gov. Martin O'Malley spoke at the deployment ceremony for Company F 1-111th Aviation Battalion, as did Capt. Mark Chambers and Maj. Gen. James Adkins, thanking the soldiers for their service, wishing them success on their upcoming mission and recognizing the sacrifices of the families who remain at home, waiting for their loved ones' return.
Once in Iraq, the 30 members of the company, which is based at Edgewood, will provide air traffic control service in support of Operation New Dawn.
Before Saturday's ceremony began, Adkins, the state adjutant general, acknowledged the transfer from his command to the regular Army's. "It's a day to be proud," he added.
When the troops return in a year or so, Adkins says the Maryland National Guard will do its best to find jobs for the soldiers and help them readjust to the "real world." They also look after the families and make sure they're doing all right while their soldiers are away, he said.
"When I go to bed at night, I think of them," Adkins said of saying goodbye to his soldiers. They may be overseas, but never far from his mind. "I'm just proud of them and I know they'll do well."
While it was a day for those soon departing, Adkins stressed that it was really "the sacrifice of the families" that was on the forefront of everyone's mind.
"Our focus is making sure they're OK," he said, commenting that not everyone can understand what they go through.
Before and after the ceremony, the flash of cameras was everywhere. Families huddled together to take one last photo of them all together, trying to keep their composure for the few seconds the picture was being taken.
Sarah Blake, 24 of North East, had a camera around her neck and snapped picture after picture of husband, Spc. David Blake, 26. It was his first time being deployed.
The Blakes held onto each other tightly as they spoke, arms wrapped around the other's waist and sneaking in subtle kisses. It would be the last time they would get to do that for about a year.
"It's a lot of nerves," David Blake said. A lot of the nervousness came from knowing he would be leaving not only his wife at home but their 10-month-old daughter, Isabella, too.
"I'm very proud of him," his wife, who was wearing a "proud Army wife" shirt, said. "I make sure I tell him that."
David Blake said he had "a lot of family support here," adding that "it must be hard without it." While he's in Iraq, the two plan to e-mail, write letters and keep day-to-day journals that they'll give each other and read when he returns.
Along with the nerves, Blake was anxious to "go out there and perform" his duties and make his family proud.
Soon, everyone was seated while the members of the Maryland National Guard, Company F stood in four lines near an American flag hanging on the back wall. Sarah Blake sat in one of the front rows and wiped a few tears away as she saw her husband stand with the others.
O'Malley led the official party — Command Sgt. Maj. Brian Sahn, Lt. Col. Michael Whelan, Brig. Gen. Peter Hinz and Adkins — as they walked to their seats.
Adkins thanked everyone for being there that morning, "honoring these great American soldiers." He said they will be joining 1,200 other troops from Maryland serving overseas.
Talking about the family's role during this time, Adkins said they have "the toughest job out there."
O'Malley shared Adkins' sentiment, saying, "It is the most noble sacrifice." He told the soldiers that "your work is critically important, especially right now in Iraq."
Addressing the families one more time, O'Malley encouraged the kids in the room to write their relatives a letter "every single week" or send a picture.
"It means a lot to them," O'Malley said.
Chambers, commander of the company, said, "Those before you rely on you more than you'll ever know," referring to the soldiers' dependence on their loved ones.
After the ceremony, the soldiers found their families once again and took more pictures and gave more hugs.
Sgt. Samantha Sherrill, 23 of Southwest Baltimore, held a bouquet of colorful flowers in her hand as she waved goodbye to her mom, saying it was "about the 17th goodbye" they had said that day.
"I'm upset, but I'm anxious to get over there," Sherrill said. She added that she was anxious to train the soldiers overseas, get the mission done, support her unit as much as she could and eventually get home.
Her mother, father and brother were in the armory where the ceremony was held and were equally as upset as Sherrill. "My mom's a mess," she said.
It is also Sherrill's first deployment, but said she and her family will communicate as much as they can. She expressed her gratitude for her family's support.
"It means a lot to us," she said.