A detachment of U.S. Army reservists gathered to say goodbye to their families at an Owings Mills reserve center yesterday, many hoping that an 11th-hour diplomatic solution will cut short their likely deployment to the Middle East.
Dressed in camouflage uniforms and black berets, the 46 soldiers with the 326th Maintenance Battalion ranged from people like Master Sgt. Joe Schall, a reservist for 28 years who had never before seen deployment, to Sgt. Shavonta Gaynor, a commander's driver called up four times since he joined the reserves in 1996.
They are among more than 3,000 reservists and National Guard troops from Maryland who have been called to duty in anticipation of a war with Iraq.
Members of the unit, which maintains a range of equipment and supplies, are to spend several days packing and preparing at the Jachman U.S. Army Reserve Center before leaving Tuesday for Aberdeen Proving Ground. They will likely train there for several weeks; after that, the group could leave on a moment's notice for a destination still unknown.
Although a few of the soldiers served with other units in the Persian Gulf war, most have not seen combat before, said Capt. LuSundra Gass, who instructed family members yesterday how to set up free e-mail accounts, settle bills and prepare for emergencies.
"There is a lot of uncertainty and fear," Gass said. "A lot of these soldiers are new soldiers, so their families really weren't expecting this."
Eight months' pregnant, Gass, of Odenton, has been spared the journey with the 326th - for the moment. But with her husband, an active-duty Army operations officer, expected to be called away at any moment, she can identify with those saying goodbye to the troops.
"Are you prepared at home?" Gass asked about 45 family members and friends of departing soldiers. "This was a big one for me. I had no idea where the circuit-breaker was."
Six months after her baby is born, Gass, who works as an assistant terminal manager for a trucking company, could be sent away herself.
Spc. Taneka Franks, 23, was spending some extra time with 2-year-old daughter Eryahn, who will live with Franks' mother for the time being. Franks said her daughter doesn't understand that her mother might be gone for a year - or longer.
"I've been telling her that Mommy is going on a plane to go bye-bye," the Northwest Baltimore woman said. "I've never been apart from her, so it's going to be hard."
Gaynor, a 25-year-old father of three from Temple Hills, said this deployment will be different than his others in Kosovo and Bosnia. "Those were peace-keeping missions," he said. "I'm ready [for war], but I'm nervous at the same time."
Schall, the master sergeant, was matter of fact about his assignment as he hoisted some of the 120 pounds of gear he will carry with him onto his back. But the thought of leaving behind his wife, Cheryl, and their children in Clarence, Pa., filled his eyes with tears.
He and Cheryl were high school sweethearts and have been married 26 years. Other than the year he spent in basic training while they were dating, and the occasional two-week training trips since, they have never been apart.
"Got a job to do, a job to do," sighed Schall, 46. "The worst thing is saying goodbye."
While some reservists like Schall have been in the Army for years, others were being called up at a much younger age.
Spc. Nisha Chaitram, who works at Catonsville Community College, is 19.
"I've got to support her, but I really don't want her to go," said her mother, Sita Chaitram of Randallstown, as she hugged her daughter. "I'm hoping it doesn't happen."
Capt. Oliver Grant, 33, of Alexandria, Va., was seen off by his wife, father, mother-in-law, 10-month-old son and English bulldog, Rosebud. His wife, Sharon, captured the group with a video camera as their baby, also named Oliver, sucked on a pacifier in his stroller.
"He's not afraid, so I'm not afraid," Sharon Grant said of her husband. "You're proud of what they're doing."