Guard unit answers call to duty

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 25, 2005

Hugs, tears, handshakes and kisses under the familiar colors of the American flag sent several Greenville residents off to war Sunday morning as approximately 40 men left the Greenville National Guard Armory on their first leg of a journey that will end in Iraq.

Approximately 100 people turned out to see the soldiers off in the hot, humid weather as Mayor Dexter McLendon pledged to them that they should not worry about their loved ones.

"We wanted to be here today for you and your families," he said.

"Just know that if your families need anything, all they have to do is call on us and we'll take care of it."

He told those in the unit who are not from Greenville that the same goes for their families as well.

Butler County Commission Chairman Jesse McWilliams also addressed the citizen soldiers and told them he wanted to thank them for their dedication to protecting America.

"Today is a sad day because you're going off to defend us," he said.

"But know that we're proud of you."

Toby Norwood, who worked as a corrections officer in Conecuh County, will serve as a gunner in Iraq and said it's difficult to leave, but he knew it might happen someday.

"When we signed up, we knew we might have to do it."

His wife of just one month, Nioka, was visibly upset knowing her husband might be deployed in a war zone.

"I don't want them to go," she said. "It makes me mad. This is my husband and just got married."

One the soldiers gathered in formation, Captain David Simmons addressed the men and told them to stay relaxed, but to stay focused.

"Everything will be okay," he said.

"Greenville has a very proud tradition when it comes to the military."

Simmons invited former members of the unit to join the formation for a few moments.

Then the group vehicles for the trip to Andalusia where the 117th Field Artillery Unit is based.

As the men drove off the armory grounds, the people assembled lined both sides of the drive applauding them and waving American Flags as Greenville Police Department officers gave the soldiers an honor escort.

This is the first time the Greenville unit has been called to active duty since the Korean War.

A much larger crowd greeted the men on Monday as they joined the rest of the unit in Andalusia.

Approximately 3,000 people, nearly one-third the population of Andalusia, filled the Kiwanis Community Center as the 98th Army Band from Fort Rucker filled the room with patriotic marches and song to help send the men

off to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The sometimes emotional, sometimes light, but completely patriotic and inspiring ceremony was a mixture of everyday citizens, guardsmen, their family, friends, and dignitaries.

The departure ceremony was a stirring tribute to the men under deployment orders, and featured brief comments from Gov. Bob Riley, Speaker of the House Seth Hammett, Sen. Jimmy Holley, Major General C. Mark Bowen, Brigadier General Gary A. Quick, Andalusia Mayor Jerry Andrews, and Lt. Col. Mark Weeks.

Scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., the ceremony was delayed a few minutes while organizers allowed time for more friends, family, and well-wishers to enter the building. Somewhat overwhelmed by the size of the crowd, Capt. Chris Theilacker, of the 1st of the 117th, said he — and all the troops — were extremely surprised and proud of the large crowd.

&uot;This is amazing,&uot; Capt. Theilacker said after all the speakers had finished. &uot;We knew we would have a good turnout, but never did we imagine this many. We had planned for about 1,000 to 1,500. Never did we think this many would show up.&uot;

That shear volume of people did not go unnoticed by the speakers, either.

&uot;If anyone doubts Alabama’s patriotism, they should be here today,&uot; said Gov. Riley in his opening remark, noting the sea of red, white, and blue dressed people waving American flags and signs proclaiming support of the troops. &uot;Know that when you head into your mission you will be carrying with you a proud tradition. There was a time when our country called on men to defend their country. They dropped their plows, came out of the fields and picked up their muskets.

&uot;Those men answered the call, and you are also answering the call,&uot; the governor continued. &uot;We can wait and fight terrorism on our own soil, or we can stop it before it spreads any further. You are doing what is right and you have our support and prayers during your mission.&uot;

The governor also took note of the soldiers family members, citing they too are paying a tremendous price during the deployment.

&uot;We understand how difficult it is to leave your family, and I’m here to tell you that we are here to take care of your loved ones while you are gone,&uot; he said. &uot;There is a wonderful support system in place, and they will be taken care of.&uot;

After his remarks, the governor then presented the first of several &uot;gifts&uot; to the troops heading overseas. He presented Captain Christopher R. Chisum, Bravo Battery, with an Alabama state flag.

&uot;Fly this flag with you on your mission and know that you have all of us in this building and all of Alabama behind you,&uot; the governor noted. &uot;Godspeed and good luck.&uot;

After Governor Riley spoke, Speaker Hammett, himself a Vietnam veteran, addressed the soldiers and their families with a fiery inspirational message. Elaborating on the governor’s comments, Hammett spoke bluntly and directly at the troops and their mission.

&uot;There was that time when we called upon men to put down their plows and pick up their muskets,&uot; Hammett said. &uot;That was 200 years ago. Today, we still call upon men and women to put down their plows and defend our country. Today, we call them the National Guard. We are proud to be in your presence … our country has always depended on people like you. You have a mission to do, and you are doing it for yourself, your family, and all of us. You are doing it for your country.&uot;

Francis Spurlin, a representative from Congressman Terry Everett’s office, spoke after Gov. Riley, in the representative’s stead, to convey Rep. Everett’s best wishes for a successful mission.

Among the military speakers, Major General Mark Bowen, Adjutant General, State of Alabama, reassured the soldiers, their families, and friends on the mission.

&uot;You are well trained, have the best equipment, and are a part of the best trained and equipped army in the world,&uot; Major Gen. Bowen said. &uot;You will carry the pride of Alabama with you and all of our support.&uot;

The general then called on a fellow guard member to lead the crowd in singing God Bless America.

And as the band played and the soldier sang, echoes of patriotic fervor were sent skyward as 3,000 voices expressed their love and pride in America.

Following the inspirational tune, Brigadier General Gary Quick spoke eloquently regarding the importance of the mission — a mission critical to the times our country faces.

&uot;This is a critical time in our history,&uot; Brig. Gen. Quick said. &uot;Earlier on, our country was called upon to step in and stop ideologies that were harmful. We saw the rise of Fascism and Nazism and the harm they did. After World War II, there was the rise of communism. Now, we are facing a rise in terrorism, and it must be stopped.

&uot;We are praying for you and your families,&uot; the Brig. General said with a slight quiver in his voice. &uot;We send you on your way on the wings of our prayers.&uot;

The battalion is made up of units from Greenville, Luverne, Andalusia, Citronelle and Geneva.

Dennis Palmer and the Andalusia Star-News contributed to this report.