Originally created 02/28/01

National Guardsmen get heroes' send-off



DOUGLAS, Ga. - Lyndsey Parsons snuggled tightly against her father's chest - burying her face in his camouflage uniform as he hugged her close Monday.

"This is the toughest part right here, leaving her behind. I'm going to miss her so much," said Spc. Donald Parsons of Douglas, reaching up to brush a stray wisp of hair from the face of his 16-month-old daughter.

Nearby, 2nd Lt. David Henderson of Midway was giving his 4-year-old son, Tommy, some last-minute instructions to be a good boy and look after the family.

"This is my first time going away for so long. We've trained hard, and I know that we're ready to carry out our mission. The hardest part is not seeing our families," Lt. Henderson said.

Spc. Parsons and 2nd Lt. Henderson are among 66 soldiers from southeast Georgia in Company C 648th Engineer Battalion of the Georgia Army National Guard who are being deployed on a six-month peacekeeping mission in northern Bosnia.

The unit, consisting of soldiers from Douglas, Waycross, Midway, Brunswick and Albany, was given a warm community send-off by an enthusiastic crowd of about 75 people who gathered at the National Guard Armory.

Capt. Robert T. Utlaut, the company commander, will lead the troops on their overseas assignment. Capt. Utlaut and other unit officers spent about two weeks last fall in Bosnia on a reconnaissance mission to prepare for the deployment. The unit has undergone weeks of specialized training at Fort Stewart near Savannah, where it expects to leave for Bosnia within a week to 10 days, Capt. Utlaut said.

The soldiers are skilled at operating a variety of military heavy equipment such as that used to dig fighting positions and check to ensure that mine fields are clear of explosives.

"The overall situation has stabilized. We're going there to uphold the peace. Specifically, our mission is to audit mine fields, and make sure that the mines have been removed. We also have a quick reaction force that will be able to assist the multinational peacekeeping force," Capt. Utlaut said.

He described troop morale as "very high," and said that the soldiers are eager to get to work.

"We ready to go over there and get the job done," he said.

Other members of the unit will serve at home.

Capt. John Davis will command 42 soldiers who are staying behind. In addition to training and continuing recruitment efforts, they will provide a variety of support services for the families of the troops overseas, Capt. Davis said.

"We're here to work with the families in any way possible. We'll answer questions and keep them and employers informed of the situation. That way, the ones on deployment don't have to worry about what's happening with their families or their jobs while they're gone," he said.

Sunlight broke through the clouds and poured through the mist-covered armory windows to bathe the soldiers in a pale rainbow-colored glow as they came to attention in full battle gear. Hand-lettered signs bearing messages included "Good Luck & God Speed" and "Thank You for Your Service to Our Country!"

Lt. Col. Arnold Parsons served in the Army during the Korean and Vietnam wars. He and other veterans from American Legion Post 18 and its women's auxiliary wanted to make sure that the soldiers, including his son, Donald, knew they would be missed.

"We're just here to show support for our troops. We didn't have this kind of a send-off back when we went overseas to Korea and Vietnam," he said.

Wilma Troupe struggled to keep from weeping as she hugged her son, Spc. 3 Jason Terry Troupe of Douglas, goodbye.

"I went through this with my husband during Desert Storm, so I kind of knew what this is all about. But it's not easy to see them go. You're never really prepared to say goodbye," said Ms. Troupe, whose husband also is a Guardsman and has been assigned to the unit's headquarters in Statesboro.

Capt. Utlaut, his voice choked with emotion, thanked residents for their support.

"Memories of this will carry us over the pond and throughout our mission. Thank you all so much," he said.