Families filed into a downtown church here Monday and then gathered at a local armory so they could say goodbye to dozens of Georgia National Guardsmen deploying to Afghanistan.
Many other such send-off ceremonies are scheduled to play out across the state in the coming weeks as about 2,200 troops from Georgia’s 48th Brigade head to Fort Stewart for final training and then to a restive part of eastern Afghanistan, where they will join the longest war in America’s history, a fight now in its 17th year.
Their nine-month mission: train Afghan security forces amid increasing violence. Last week, a suicide bomber struck a religious gathering in Kabul, killing at least 55 people. Also this month, the Taliban slaughtered many elite Afghan commandos and nearly overran Jaghori, a city in Afghanistan’s central highlands. Ten U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year, according to icasualties.org
MORE: Georgia guardsmen to face crowded, complex battlefield in Afghanistan
Sgt. 1st Class Chris Davis of Chickamauga is among those heading overseas with the Dalton-based C Troop of the Georgia Guard’s 1st Squadron of the 108th Calvary Regiment. A full-time Guardsman, the 33-year-old Davis has previously deployed with 48th Brigade to Iraq and Afghanistan.
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He has scrambled in recent days to tackle a series of chores before his departure, changing the oil in the family’s Chevrolet Suburban and tending to his home’s septic system. He is already looking forward to the camaraderie with his fellow troops — and to coming home.
“The sooner we get it started, the sooner we get to come home is my outlook,” said Davis, whose grandfathers served in the U.S. military during World War II.
His wife, Ivy, will care for their four-years-old and eight-months-old sons while Davis is away with some help from their friends and their church, where she teaches.
“I don’t think it has hit yet,” she said. “Once he leaves and we are not able to communicate like we are used to, then it will probably be a little bit harder, especially with my oldest” son.
She watched Monday as her husband stood at attention with his unit on a stage bathed in red, white and blue lights in Rock Bridge Community Church. A volunteer handed out boxes of tissues before the proceedings began.
Addressing the audience, Dalton Mayor Dennis Mock quoted from President Abraham Lincoln’s speech to the 166th Ohio Regiment in 1864.
“It is not merely for today but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children’s children this great and free government, which we have enjoyed all our lives,” he said.
When it was his turn to speak, state Sen. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton, referred to the babies babbling in the audience.
“It is every generation’s duty to preserve freedom for those that we hear in the background,” he said, his voice laced with emotion. “God bless you. God bless each and every one of your families as we wish you well in everything to come and Godspeed in coming home.”
Capt. Nathan Turk, commander of C Troop, thanked the families who had gathered to say goodbye.
“You and the freedoms you represent are what we fight to preserve and protect,” he said. “Without your support, we cannot be successful.”
The soldiers then headed up the street to their armory, where they dined on an American flag cake. Someone handed out miniature, camouflage-colored copies of the New Testament. Children displayed homemade thank you cards for the troops, one declaring: “You are brave and smart.”
Next, the soldiers boarded buses and headed down West Crawford Street, past Harmon Field, the home of the Dalton Catamounts, and past teary-eyed friends and relatives waving goodbye. Dalton police and volunteer motorcyclists from the Patriot Guard Riders led the way out of town.
Troops will return home from Fort Stewart to spend time with their families at Christmas, before they deploy to Afghanistan starting in January.