NC soldiers say goodbye
Almost 4,000 North Carolina National Guard soldiers have now left for a year-long deployment to Iraq. They're part of the state's largest guard unit, and the last few battalions said goodbye to their families in the Charlotte area over the weekend. For about half of the soldiers in the 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, this is their second deployment to Iraq. So on the one hand, it's easier for Jodie Gross, because she knows what to expect while her husband's gone. On the other hand, "last time he went, Kole wasn't really old enough to realize his daddy was gonna be gone," says Gross. "So we're having to prepare him for his daddy being gone. So it's a little bit different that way." Gross says she and her husband sat their four-year old down and told him daddy would be gone for a long time helping people in another country. And they got him a map so he can see where Iraq is. Gross is prepared for her husband's absence to affect every aspect of home life. "Just a lot more stuff that I'm gonna have to take care of by myself," says Gross. "Just little simple stuff like I'm going to have to take the trash out." A military band strikes up in the packed auditorium. Kole - who's wearing a miniature version of his dad's uniform - climbs onto his mom's lap to catch a glimpse of the soldiers marching in. Many of them are leaving young families behind. "The way I view it the families have the hardest job, because they have to hold up the homefront," says B Battalion Captain Brian Grey. And since these are National Guard soldiers with day jobs and only a part-time commitment to the military, their families don't have the built-in support and resources of life on a base. They're often the only military family in the neighborhood; the only child at school with a parent in Iraq. So Captain Grey says the National Guard tries to create a network for the families. "Each one of our families being able to lean on each other is extremely important," says Grey. "They're going through the same ordeals." "I would like to think we've learned some lessons from the past," says Renee Brotherton. She's a family assistance worker with the National Guardin Charlotte. "I hope we've made some strides in being able to take care of our families a little better than we did the last time." At the soldier farewell, Brotherton hands out pamphlets for the parents and coloring books for the kids. The last time these four-thousand soldiers of the 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team were called up - back in 2003 - North Carolina National Guard officials acknowledge the needs of the soldiers' families overwhelmed the support system they had in place. Since then, the state has spent half a million dollars opening additional resource centers for guard families and hiring workers like Brotherton to do more outreach. "We contact them on a monthly basis," says Brotherton. "Call 'em up or send them a note, email, whatever the case may be. Just to see if there's any needs they may need assistance with. A lot of times there's people that need something but they're not gonna reach out." The family assistance centers can help with getting military benefits, financial assistance and counselors for family members who are struggling. The outreach is already helping Julie Shelton, whose son Joshua is deploying overseas for the first time. She says the last few days have been rough, but now she's feeling"pretty good, because the family readiness group has been so supportive and we all have a point of contact if we need to contact our soldier if they need to contact us." "I think they're a whole lot better prepared this time, cause this is the big one, you know?" says Shelton. "I have mixed emotions about it," says Robin Parker. Her son is deploying too. "I'm very, very proud of him and I'm proud of his decision," Parker's voice trails off as she chokes back tears. "It's hard, as a mother. I'm very proud of him." On the other side of the auditorium, near the cookies and punch five-year old Chloe McArthur clings to her father. She's proud of him too, but "I feel sad." North Carolina National Guard officials hope they've put the system in place to make sure the Sheltons, Parkers, McArthurs and families of all four-thousand soldiers in the 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team have the basics covered during the next twelve months. What they can't do, is bring five-year-old Chloe's dad home more quickly. But in a few weeks the U.S. military will have a new Commander-in-Chief. And that's something he's promised to work on.