Nearly 200 Maryland National Guard soldiers parted with their families Sunday at an Army base in Northern Virginia for deployment through the holidays to the Middle East.
Lt. Col. Eric Brown bought Christmas gifts early for his three daughters and hid them in their Windsor Mill home.
"My wife, she'll tell them, 'This is from daddy,' on Christmas," said Brown, who stashed away Strawberry Shortcake dolls for his girls.
"Daddy, can I go to the airport with you?" pleaded 6-year-old Tatania, leaning deep in his arms.
Nearly 200 Maryland National Guard soldiers parted with their families Sunday at this Army base in Northern Virginia for deployment over the holidays to the Middle East.
The send-off at Fort Belvoir is part of a historic deployment for the 29th Infantry Division. A combined 450 soldiers from the Maryland and Virginia National Guards will command nearly 18,000 troops across the Middle East, the largest contingent the 29th has led since it stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II.
Their role as the headquarters unit will include managing supplies, operations and training. It reveals the evolution of the National Guard in roles of increasing responsibility as defense officials draw down the number of active duty troops overseas.
The Marylanders and Virginians had only 90 days notice before Sunday's deployment. They're due back in June.
"You have stepped up on short notice," Brig. Gen. Blake Ortner, the commander of the 29th, told the soldiers and families. "This mission will be a challenge. ... It would have been a challenge if we had a year to get ready instead of just 90 days."
The soldiers will be deployed across the Middle East to provide logistical and personnel support — administrative duties that won't bring them to the front lines in the fight against the Islamic State. Still, the soldiers will be positioned for quick action if needed in the offensive to root out the terrorist group from Mosul, its stronghold in Iraq.
"If things were to escalate from where they are now, the 29th would be the contingency headquarters to help," said Cotton Puryear, spokesman for the Virginia National Guard.
The soldiers will also help train troops from across the coalition of nations fighting to dislodge the terrorist group in the Middle East.
"They do not want to get in the specifics of where they will be for security reasons," Puryear said.
Their deployment brings to about 500 the number of Maryland guardsmen overseas. Some 6,500 serve in Maryland.
Twelve A-10 attack planes and 280 airmen from the Maryland guard's 104th Fighter Squadron were deployed to the Middle East about three weeks ago to aid in the fight for Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. The Islamic State captured Mosul in a lightning advance in the summer of 2014.
A-10 pilots specialize in flying low over the battlefield to support troops on the ground. They use a nose-mounted cannon to lay fire.
Back home, the Maryland National Guard was deployed to Baltimore during the riots of April 2015. Soldiers responded after January's historic blizzard dumped more than two feet of snow. Guardsmen were called again when floods deluged Ellicott City this summer.
"You are always ready. You always step up when you are called upon," Gov. Larry Hogan told the crowd Sunday. His stepdaughter Kim Velez served in Maryland's National Guard. "I understand the sacrifice of the family members who are left behind to worry and to pray."
Hogan threw a farewell party at the governor's mansion for an officer in his security detail and guardsman who deployed Sunday.
The officer, Staff Sgt. Jeffery Middleton, 25, of Salisbury, said he will miss most his grandmother's Thanksgiving turkey. Her secret: "There's no secret," Katherine Middleton said. "Family makes your turkey."
Sgt. 1st Class Carmen Wilkins of Aberdeen was surprised Friday after her grandson's football game. The Havre de Grace Warriors left the locker room to hug her, shake her hand, and thank her for her service. Wilkins wiped her eyes Sunday when recalling their gratitude.