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No joy, just hugs at reserve center

The Baltimore Sun

A soldier off to war, saying goodbye to a sweetheart, is a picture as old as time, a familiar tableau of sorrow and longing, with the worst of possibilities unspoken.

At Fort Meade yesterday, the scene played out dozens of times, as 157 soldiers from the Army's 400th Military Police Battalion prepared for their deployment to an internment facility in what Army brass would describe only as "Southwest Asia" - a euphemism for Iraq or Afghanistan.

For Jamie Potchak, the 21-year-old girlfriend of Pfc. Matthew Montag, who is also 21 and enlisted two years ago, the parting was wrenching, although she managed a bright smile. They live five minutes from each other in Johnstown, Pa., she said, and usually got together every day while he studied political science at Pennsylvania State University. Now, at the start of his 400-day deployment, she knows she may not see him until next summer, and then only for a week before he has to go back to war.

"It's going to be a big adjustment," Potchak said as she clutched Montag's camouflage coat, a pair of bold "MP" patches sewn onto its shoulders.

When Montag signed up, she wasn't too surprised. "He wanted to go to Iraq," she said. "He wanted to be a part of it. Crazy, I know. I understood that he wanted to go, so I was proud of him, but it worries me a lot."

Montag put a good face on his imminent departure. "It'll be a good experience," he said. "I think we just go over and do our mission and come home. It'll be good."

During a farewell ceremony, Montag's commanding officer, Maj. Steven E. Shatzer, said he had no doubt that the unit - which will first train for 61 days at Fort Bliss in Texas before shipping overseas - would serve with honor. "I'm proud that all of you have chosen to stand here," he said.

Addressing family members gathered in the chilly afternoon at the General DeKalb U.S. Army Reserve Center, Shatzer said, "We look forward to the day, and that day will come, when we come back to your strong and loving arms."

For some of the soldiers, this was not a new experience, despite the unit's reserve status. Sgt. Leslie Puckett, 31, who comes from a long line of military people, spent about nine months in Baghdad in 2003.

"It was OK," she said. Then, thinking about it some more, she said, "No, it wasn't. It was tolerable."

Her mother, Deborah Puckett, who had driven to the ceremony from her home in Courtland, Va., said she doesn't worry - much - when her daughter is deployed overseas.

"I have faith that she's been properly trained, and she's very professional," said the elder Puckett. "We've been through this before."

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