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Bittersweet farewell

The Baltimore Sun

In the past week, the Eutsler family has celebrated a year's worth of holidays.

They decorated a Christmas tree, nestled Easter eggs in their garden and cooked a full Thanksgiving feast. They hung decorations for Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day alongside birthday banners. And the boys - ages 3 and 5 - gave their dad a present for each occasion they were celebrating.

"I wanted Jeff to have every holiday he'll miss," Lori Eutsler said tearfully. "We crammed a lot into one week."

Her husband, Jeff Eutsler, is a captain in the Army Reserve's 1398th Deployment Support Brigade - a transportation unit that left yesterday for a month of training in Indiana before beginning a yearlong deployment to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I'm excited to go because I have to be," Jeff Eutsler said as his boys scampered around the driveway of the Army Reserve Center in Glen Burnie, where his unit's farewell ceremony was held. "You can feel upset and sad, but all that does is prolong your time there. I will miss my family, but I look forward to going because it's what we do."

Many of the 50 soldiers from the Curtis Bay unit being deployed spoke with a similar sense of duty about their year of overseas service. Mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, spouses, children and friends all gathered yesterday to honor them and send them off to war.

In the shadow of a giant American flag, the troops and their families listened to the national anthem, prayed together and heard words of support and encouragement from Army leaders and the unit's family support readiness coordinator, whose husband is also being deployed.

"We know it is a dangerous job, and we pray that each and every one of you return safely to your families," said Col. John O'Connor, deputy commander of the Army's Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command in Fort Eustis, Va. Acknowledging that a wartime deployment requires "sacrifices for the peace and security of our country" from soldiers as well as their families, he vowed that the Army will do everything it can to support those on both sides of the ocean.

He noted that the soldiers standing before him were joining the third-longest war in the nation's history - after the Revolutionary and Vietnam wars - but the only one of those being fought with an all-volunteer military. And he recognized that this is the second or third deployment for some of them.

"Long after this global situation is resolved - and it will be resolved - you will be back," O'Connor said. He predicted that the unit's members will find their mission to be "more satisfying and more rewarding than anything you can imagine."

"You will change lives," the colonel added, "and save lives."

A unit of cargo specialists, the 1398th is responsible for assisting other brigades moving into or out of combat areas by loading and unloading trains and ships and helping to distribute equipment to newly arrived soldiers, said Col. M. Sean Tuomey, the unit's commander.

During its last assignment in the Middle East - in 2005 - the unit helped deploy, redeploy and distribute 8,000 vehicles, 3 million items valued at $400 million and 7,000 tons of ammunition to and from such far-flung spots as a 20-person forward operating base in Afghanistan and a military post in Iraq with up to 2,000 troops.

Kristen McLaughlin, 11, of Reisterstown doesn't know much about her dad's job in the Army Reserve, but she knows it's something to be proud of.

"He's going to help with transportation and look over all the soldiers' squads and what they bring to make sure it's safe," she said. "He says it's very important, so I'm happy he'll be able to do something for our country."

Kristen, her 12-year-old brother, Brett, and their mother, Barbara, recently gave Maj. Bruce McLaughlin three tiny gold hearts to add to a chain with a cross on it that he wears around his neck.

"It's to remind him that we're with him," Kristen explained.

Bruce McLaughlin, 44, a regional sales manager for a rental car company, said he will keep the tokens close to his heart. Like many fellow soldiers, he expressed mixed feelings about the deployment.

"I'm excited to go do the job, but it's tough leaving," he said. "It's tough."

He said he feels "very comfortable with the risks that we're going to be facing" but worries that the biggest challenge will be staying safe during long, tiring days when accidents could become more likely.

Desiree Derrick, 30, a first lieutenant with the 1398th and an engineer with Kraft Foods from Monmouth Junction, N.J., said she is excited about her first deployment but remains unsure of the danger the unit will face.

"A lot of times, there are a lot of insurgencies," she said, bouncing her 6-month-old nephew while waiting in line for pizza at the farewell. "But a lot of times, there's peace. So I don't know what to expect at any given moment."

In his invocation during the deployment ceremony, Chaplain Brian Jacobson, a lieutenant in the Coast Guard, asked God to "truly raise up a standard of protection" around the soldiers being sent off and to "allow the sands of time to slip through that hourglass a little more quickly."

Lori Eutsler knows that speeding time along is not easy. Her husband was last deployed to Iraq in 2003, seven days after the birth of their elder son, Haven. That yearlong assignment stretched to 492 days.

"I remember lying in the hospital, and he said, 'This is what I have to do. This is what I was meant to do,' " Lori Eutsler said. "How can you not be proud of that? We have our own homegrown hero in our house. Not many people have that."

Lori and Jeff Eutsler, both schoolteachers in Easton, have explained to the boys that their daddy is going to the desert and that he'll be gone for all of Haven's year of kindergarten.

"I feel a lot of pride," said Lori Eutsler, who had the phrase "My soldier, my hero" tattooed on the back of her neck. "But I hate to see him go."

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