Bridgette Dupree stood on the front lawn of the Melvin H. Cade Armory with her daughters, Alexis and Allison, staring bleary-eyed at an idling bus that Cpl. Anthony Dupree had boarded moments earlier. That's when Bridgette's cell phone rang.
"Hi, baby," she said. "I miss you so much."
Cpl. Dupree was one of about 170 Maryland Army National Guard soldiers deployed yesterday for a year of duty overseas. After two months of additional training in Indiana, members of the 243rd Engineering Company of Reisterstown will drive supply trucks in Iraq.
They will be embarking on one of the most dangerous roles in the war on the heels of its deadliest month for reserves. Thirty members of the Army National Guard, Army Reserve and Marine Corps Reserve died last month, matching the highest toll for any month of the war.
That weighed heavily on the minds of the families they are leaving behind, who had hoped their loved ones might be spared from being called up by a military that is heavily relying on reserves. Members of the National Guard and reserves make up nearly half the American force in Iraq.
"It's definitely going to be interesting," said the company's commander, Capt. Eric Swanson, taking a break from playing with his 8-month-old daughter, Sophie. "We're serving all the troops over there, to make sure they have what they need. It's a tough mission, but we know it's necessary."
The dangers of leaving for Iraq were magnified by the pain of being away from families and friends, which prompted plenty of emotional moments during yesterday morning's farewell.
Dozens of toddlers and young children played with stuffed animals and waved American flags, while boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters held each other close. A T-shirt worn by one woman summed up the feelings of family members: "United States Army Wife: Hardest Job in the World," it read.
Spc. Clarence Hammett, a wiry 31-year-old bank protection officer from Essex, left behind his wife and two children -- and in two weeks, a third. His wife, Kimesha, is pregnant with their third child, a boy, and they hoped to pick out a name soon, perhaps by the end of yesterday. Hammett said he is seeking permission from his commander to be with his wife when the child is born.
"If it's family first, if they really care about the soldiers, they'll allow me to come home to see my wife and my child," he said while his 7-year-old son, Dejour, held onto his side. He said Dejour has been telling his teachers in school that his daddy is going away for a long time. "That's really hard right there," he said, his eyes tearing up.
In a brief speech, Maj. Gen. Bruce F. Tuxill, the adjutant general for the Maryland National Guard, assured troops and their families that they would be well taken care of. "You're Maryland National Guard," he said, interrupted by cheers, "and one thing we don't forget is Maryland guardsmen."
The emphasis on caring for troops in the Army Reserve and National Guard has increased in recent months because of recruitment difficulties. Yesterday, the Army National Guard reported it reached 71 percent of its recruiting goal last month, and the Army Reserve met 82 percent of its goal.
Though he's been through three deployments, yesterday's departure was particularly tough for Staff Sgt. John Hawkins. His wife's birthday was last week, their first wedding anniversary yesterday, his birthday today and his 27-year-old son's wedding tomorrow.
Because of the busy training schedule and preparations to leave, soldiers have not had much time with their loved ones. To celebrate two weeks worth of events, Hawkins, 46, took his wife out on her birthday. "I tried to keep her mind on celebrating, but there was a whole lot of crying," he said.
As 11 a.m. approached, one soldier roamed the crowd telling soldiers to load the buses. "Take it in! Take it in! Let's go!" he hollered.
Hammett waited until the last moment well off to the side of the building with his family, holding Kimesha and whispering into her ear as she buried her face in his neck.
Under the shade of a tree, Bridgette Dupree and her daughters watched the buses. She proudly showed a cell phone photo Anthony had sent to her. In it, he's seated on the bus, lips pursed and blowing a kiss to his family. She sent him a photo of her and the two girls returning the kiss.
"Right when we were having a hard time, he sent us this," she said.
Cpl. Dupree was part of Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s but was out of the military when the couple met in 1995. He remained in the Guard, and his contract finished in September. But as was the case with many other soldiers, the contract was extended. Bridgette Dupree says she does not understand why her husband is needed, and hopes the war will soon end.
"It's really scary ... I'm putting my faith in God he'll be OK," she said.