The reality is beginning to settle in for members of Hamburg-based 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team.In less than a month, each soldier in one of the oldest National Guard units in the nation will begin final preparations before entering the Iraqi combat theater using some of the Army's latest technology.
On Sunday, the brigade gathered at the Fifth Street Armory in Hamburg for the Family Support Picnic. Soldiers and their families heard about three hours of briefings on how best to prepare for the impending deployment and then enjoyed the August heat with a picnic behind the historic facility.
With the National Guard unit slated to deploy to Camp Shelby, Miss., on Sept. 19, and then to Fort Polk, La., before eventually arriving in Kuwait for its 9-month tour in Iraq, soldiers expect to be away from home for a full year.
With any National Guard unit, its soldiers vary in age from the youngest to the more senior serving members of the Armed Forces. Some have just enlisted, and others are former soldiers in other branches of the service. Though this brigade is based in Hamburg, only one soldier, Mike Groff, calls it home, and he won't be deploying. Instead, he will continue at Kutztown University.
The 56th Stryker brigade also includes units from the Kutztown and Plymouth National Guard.
1st Lt. Troy A. Beane calls Norristown home, but said at Sunday's picnic each soldier calls Hamburg home, too. He said soldiers in the Stryker brigade hail from all over eastern Pennsylvania. "We have a broad base of experience," he added.
1st Sgt. Greg Kilpatrick, who Beane identified half-jokingly as the brigade's most senior member, reiterated Beane's feeling on loyalty to the unit's base.
"Once they all get here, we're all one team," he said. "We're all from Hamburg."
In total, between 2,500 and 4,000 soldiers will be deployed from this Pennsylvania National Guard, which is based in Philadelphia. This deployment is part of a nationwide deployment of National Guard units, sending more than 20,000 Army National Guard soldiers into active combat. The Stryker brigade traces its roots to the Associated Regiment of the Foot, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1747.
In direct contrast to its deeply historic roots, the Stryker Combat brigade will be operating some of the Army's newest machinery, the Stryker combat vehicle, which is the first new tank introduced to the Army since the M2/M3 Abrams in the 1980s. The 19-ton machine is designed to haul an entire infantry unit into an active combat zone and provide ground clearance through a series of hi-tech weaponry. It constantly travels in four-wheel drive, but can switch to eight-wheel drive.
This particular National Guard unit is the only one in the nation dedicated specifically to the Stryker vehicle and is only one of seven brigades in the Army properly trained on the vehicle. The Pennsylvania Guard unit, along with a group called to active duty from Colorado, will be the only two serving as Brigade Combat Teams, performing every aspect of operations in the Operation Iraqi Freedom battlefield.
According to the Army, the group will also contribute to the security force responsible for ensuring freedom of movement and continuity of operations across the country. These tasks include base defense and route security.
The first warning sign for soldiers at the Hamburg Armory that deployment was more than a possibility happened last October when the Army put it on alert for deployment. Soldiers presumed on their own that the day next month would eventually happen. The group has been training for about five years to specifically manage the Stryker combat vehicle and leadership with the brigade is ready to put that extensive training to use.
"We were expecting this," Beane said.
Kilpatrick again agreed with Beane, adding "We trained for so many years."
No soldiers believed the fact that nearly every soldier calls a different place home and that assembling as a group is rare, it didn't hamper the necessary training to prepare for combat.
Kilpatrick credited the brigade's leadership "from the top down. These guys are flexible."
Despite any soldier's readiness to employ their training, there is the fact that just three weeks remain until they leave loved ones at home while they enter fierce combat.
Beane tried to shrug off any emotion at this point, and said active deployment and being separated from his family is "part of the mission."
The Family Support Group of the National Guard is loosely organized at this point, but put together Sunday's picnic as one of a few steps in preparing families and soldiers for their deployment. A luncheon precedes the actual deployment on Sept. 19, and from now until then, the military families who gathered in Hamburg Sunday will be spending the next three weeks preparing their employers, and most importantly their families, for their absence.
"It's never enough time," Kilpatrick said.