Sunday, December 28, 2003

Ohio's 512th won't miss war

National Guard from Cincy heads to Iraq

By Kimberly Hefling
The Associated Press

EDINBURGH, Ind. - There were tears and hugs and so much sobbing among Spc. Marcus Welch's family that he said it was "like I was dead."

But this was no funeral - just the going-away ceremony for the Ohio National Guard's 512th Engineer Battalion, which will be among the first units to leave in the next wave of troops heading for Iraq.

From January to May, the roughly 123,000 U.S. troops in Iraq will be replaced with about 110,000 new fighters, many from Guard units such as the Cincinnati-based 512th.

They've said their goodbyes and, after a month of training, will head to Iraq to fight in a war they thought they'd missed.

"This is unexpected. I had my life planned, but I'm ready to do what I've got to do," said Welch, 24, a clothing designer, as he underwent training at Camp Atterbury, about 30 miles south of Indianapolis, where the unit is preparing to deploy.

The 512th, a headquarters unit of the Ohio Army National Guard that oversees construction projects, has been through such preparation before. Their bags were packed in February to go to Turkey for the planned invasion of northern Iraq.

Then Turkey decided not to allow American troops on its soil, so the unit unpacked. They returned to their civilian jobs and watched the war on television, feeling left out but somewhat relieved.

Then the call came again.

The 512th came together for a farewell ceremony. Soon after, they left for Camp Atterbury for vaccines, weapons training and cultural lessons. Welch wishes they could have departed on a different note.

"I don't want my last memory to be of everybody crying," he said.

Sergeant Mommie

Sgt. B.J. Hubbard, 33, was pregnant in February with her fifth child and not eligible to deploy. She watched as others prepared to go.

This time, she's packed too. Her infant daughter, Avi, is 4 months old.

From inside the women's sleeping quarters, she holds up a blue pair of pajamas. In black marker she's printed the name of her husband and five children. Across the top she wrote "J.I.L.O.A" - Jesus is Lord of all.

"At night, I can still have my family near me," she said.

The pants are signed in black marker by the kids, ages 4 months to 16. One message says, "Mommy, can I have a dog?" Another says, "I love my Mommy."

Hubbard's husband is in the Naval Reserves. Some members of his unit were activated, but because of Hubbard's deployment, her husband did not have to go overseas - at least for now.

Her 16-year-old daughter is envious and wants to go to Iraq. She says she'll join the military when she turns 17. The 5-year-old is confused, Hubbard said.

"I told her there was a bad man named Saddam Hussein, and I needed to go over and make sure he don't hurt any more kids," Hubbard said. When the 5-year-old heard Saddam was captured, she wanted to know if Hubbard was still leaving.

Hubbard told her, "We still have to make sure the mommies and babies are OK."

Not good timing

2003 was a year of goodbyes for Spc. Charissa Hayden. Her family threw her a going-away party. Then she said goodbye in February to her boyfriend, Spc. Mark Richard, a 101st Airborne Division soldier who left to fight in Iraq.

But her deployment was canceled when Turkish leaders refused to allow U.S. troops into their country. She continued attending classes at the University of Cincinnati. She worried about him.

She planned to move to the Fort Campbell, Ky., area to go to school near him. The two met two years ago in training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and later commuted the four hours between Fort Campbell and Cincinnati for visits.

She'll now be in Iraq. He'll be home.

"It wasn't good timing at all," said Hayden, 20. "This is definitely not something I would've expected."

Richard was able to talk his commander into letting him come home. During their four days together before she left for Camp Atterbury, he helped her pack.

They shied away from talking about what he had seen. The 101st has lost 57 soldiers in Iraq - more than any other division.

"He kept away from telling his stuff, and I keep away from asking him questions too," Hayden said.

They talked about eloping, then decided against it.

"All the plans just went down the drain. It's been rough. I don't know after that long if things will be the same. But when we came back this weekend, nothing had changed," she said.

Hayden said this wasn't what she bargained for when she joined the Guard to pay for school. "I signed up before September 11. Everything was so peaceful. I thought I'd be cleaning up after floods or something."

Touching moment

Lt. Col. Mike Ernst's daughter, Crystal Zizzo, was so distraught her dad was going to miss her spring wedding in Arizona, she wrote a letter to President Bush asking him to delay Ernst's deployment. She received a generic form letter back.

Later, her father's deployment plans changed, and Ernst, commander of the 512th, was able to attend. Zizzo, 30, picked a song she felt would be appropriate for the father-daughter dance: "The Star Spangled Banner."

"The whole place was in tears," Ernst said. "It was a pretty touching moment."

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