Oregon reservists resolutely meet Mideast challenge
Sgt. Michael Coats, part of the largest mobilization of Oregon Army National Guard reservists since World War II, gets right to the point when discussing the threat of war in Iraq.
With his wife and baby boy at his side Saturday, a resolute Coats, who works as a security guard as a civilian, didn't flinch when asked about the possiblity of going to war: 'We'll help you sleep at night. We're going to be standing on the wall one more time.'
Although they don't know where they will be stationed, more than 400 soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 162nd Infantry, left their loved ones behind Saturday when they flew to Fort Carson, Colo., where they will undergo training before heading to the Middle East in a couple of weeks.
'Their morale is high, their ability is excellent, and they will do their jobs in a way that everyone can be proud of,' Capt. John Robinson said Saturday morning as he supervised a portion of the deployment at the Gresham National Guard Armory.
By the end of February, more than 1,200 of the 5,000 Oregon National Guard members will be stationed in 'the central command area of operations,' said Maj. Arnold Strong, public affairs officer for the Oregon Military Department. He said 345 Oregon reservists were called up for the Persian Gulf War.
'This is the most activations we've seen in Oregon since the Second World War,' said Strong, adding that similar numbers of call-ups are occurring all across the country. 'A lot of National Guard units are being activated.'
On Saturday, as many antiwar protesters around the world raised doubts about the need for the United States to invade Iraq, the Oregon troops said they were ready to do whatever President Bush asked of them.
'Regardless of how people feel about the conflict, it is important to recognize the sacrifice that the troops are making, to support them if war starts and to honor them when they return home,' said Rep. Darlene Hooley, D-Ore., during a brief ceremony before the soldiers flew to Colorado.
A diverse group
The Gresham gathering was part of a daylong mobilization of the battalion. The troops were formally called up two weeks ago and will be deployed for up to one year. According to Robinson, most are in their 20s and come from all walks of life.
'We have everyone from students to accountants to lawyers and office managers,' said Robinson, who lives in St. Johns and is an inventory manager at Nike.
By midmorning, the soldiers had been bused to a large hangar north of the Oregon Air National Guard base near Portland International Airport, where they joined units that had assembled at other armories around the state.
Standing in formation at stiff attention in the hangar, the troops watched as Hooley presented them with the U.S. flag they will carry wherever they go. In return, Hooley received a framed set of the battalion's colors that will stay in her congressional office until they return from their mission, at which time the flag and colors will be exchanged again in another ceremony.
The soldiers then boarded a twin-engine jet for the flight to Fort Carson, where they will receive 10 to 14 days of training for a conflict that the soldiers consider imminent. Some of the soldiers at the Portland hangar speculated that they initially would be dispatched to Turkey or Kuwait.
Speaking after the ceremony, Maj. Gen. Alexander Burgin, the adjutant general of the Oregon Military Department, said their duties could range from securing refugee camps to frontline combat.
'They're well trained and capable of handling any mission,' Burgin said.
Most of the guardsmen had been deployed overseas before, including a 1999 peacekeeping stint in Saudi Arabia.
'This is just another day in the Army,' joked Corp. Brad Lindsey, a private security guard who returned from the Middle East in 2000.
An emotional day
The departures marked the second time that Oregon guardsmen have left the state under the current mobilization. According to Strong, approximately 50 troops left Feb. 8 after a similar ceremony at the Lake Oswego armory.
Another 140 troops spent Monday morning in Albany preparing to leave the state.
Because many of the families have sent off the reservists to the Middle East before, there were a lot of brave faces on Saturday. But there also were a lot of tears.
Sgt. Roosevelt Bradley, who said goodbye to his fiance and their 8-week-old son at the Gresham armory, said he is ready for what lies ahead, but the waiting has been difficult.
'It's like peeling an onion. I started off tough, but every day is like peeling off a layer. Last night was pretty rough,' said Bradley, a native of Miami who moved to Milwaukie after falling in love with the Northwest while stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash.
The guardsmen were called up two weeks ago and have spent the time training and getting their personal affairs in order.
Sgt. Kyle Heinz agreed with Bradley, noting that the last night he spent with his wife, Heidi, was Valentine's Day.
'I wish they'd just put us on a plane and send us off,' Heinz said as he played with the couple's 9-year old son, Damian.
All of the families are making adjustments to cope with the call-up.
Coats' wife, Carol, said she will take their 6-week-old son, Wyatt, to Texas to live with her parents.
'I'm sad, but I know why he has to go, and I'm proud of him,' she said.
And Joyce Lindsey is arranging extra day care for the couple's 5-year-old daughter so she can continue working as a baggage screener at Portland International Airport. Others talked about the support they were receiving from friends and relatives.
'I'm going to miss him a lot,' said Debbie Robertson, hugging her husband, Wade, a team leader.