It was a bittersweet day for the men and women of the National Guard's 201st Agribusiness Development Team, who were celebrated Monday in a departure ceremony at Fort Gordon.
There was excitement in the air and on the lips of the guardsmen who stood in the already-stuffy morning heat of the gymnasium. But there were also tears, lots of them, as they said farewell to their loved ones.
"The hardest part is leaving my family," said Maj. Greg Worden, a mission leader for the unit, who stood near his wife. "When I'm there, I'll be able to fill my time with work, but my family will have to suffer that gap without much to fill it."
The unit, which is based at Fort Gordon, will soon depart for Camp Atterbury, Ind., before deploying in late May to southeastern Afghanistan, where it will spend a year teaching farmers to better grow, irrigate and market their foodstuffs.
In an interview this month, Worden said the unit's goal will be to orient the farmers toward a market-based approach to their work instead of simply subsisting on the apples and wheat they grow. It's part of the military's strategy to instill confidence in the Afghan government by trying to reverse the country's agricultural decline brought on by years of warfare.
"After two generations of war, some of the hydrology is destroyed and they have to learn to maintain and rebuild," Worden said. "Our goal is to get these farmers and their support elements back up to speed and get some confidence in the local government."
The unit is the first of its kind in Georgia, and its members have prepared for their deployment by learning about soil sciences, animal nutrition, fruit production and even bee farming at the University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Recently, they were at Fort Stewart, near Savannah, where they brushed up on combat training.
In his remarks to the unit, their commander, Col. Bill Williams III, said Georgia's rich agricultural history makes it the perfect state -- and them the perfect soldiers -- to carry out the mission.
"We are blessed with the opportunity to help our fellow man -- the Afghan people -- to help themselves," he said. "We have a unique opportunity to help the Afghans have a better life."
After the music and praise from state and local leaders, the soldiers were released for pictures and hugs with the eager loved ones seated a short distance away.
The families rushed down to the floor of the gymnasium with all the enthusiasm of an excited crowd after a championship basketball game.
Angel Mendez, 21, of Woodstock, Ga., stood taking pictures with his family as he thought about the mission to come.
Mendez is part of the unit's security force, and he said he was "actually pretty excited" about being deployed for the first time:
"I'm confident in our training that we've been given and that we're going to do a good job."