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January 29, 2013

'We're proud of them:' 833rd deploys for Afghanistan

OTTUMWA — Family members gave their soldiers a last hug and kiss before waving goodbye as the 833rd Engineer Company’s buses pulled out of the parking lot.

This is the third combat deployment for some of the troops of the Ottumwa-based unit.

But don’t forget, said speakers at a ceremony in their honor Monday morning, that makes it the third time families are sending their soldier overseas.

“To the families, you are the backbone. It’s our job to see they have that support back home while [deployed], and when they return,” said U.S. Congressman Dave Loebsack.

Col. Steve Altman, deputy commanding general, Iowa Army National Guard, presented the unit with the traditional Iowa flag, in the hope that they would find a place to fly it proudly in Afghanistan. When they see it, they can remember the people of Iowa are here for them, he said.

This is the second deployment for Capt. Kiel Archer, of Indianola, though it’s the first for his wife, Gena, and 1-year-old daughter, Reyna.

This will be the third deployment for 15 men from the 833rd, Archer said, as well as a handful going on their third tour who have previously served with different units in Iowa.

“A third deployment seems to be a rarity, but it’s special,” Archer said. “It shows their dedication and service.”

Deploying is different each time, he said, especially as he gets older.

“I have a family now,” he said. “But the job we have to accomplish is first and foremost in our minds.”

This year the men will conduct route clearance, monitor the routes and look for IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

“It’s not any more dangerous than any other job,” he said. “But anytime you go outside the wire, it’s a risk.”

But safety is always a priority of leadership, he said, and the unit’s equipment is top notch after years and years of study.

He said missing a year of his daughter’s life will be hard, but other soldiers that have been deployed three times have missed three of their childrens’ developmental years.

“It’s a sacrifice for the families,” Gena Archer said. “But obviously we’re proud of them.”

She hopes this year will go by fast.

“We spent a lot of time together,” Gena said of the weeks prior to Archer’s deployment. “We took as much time as we could.”

The family also made voice recordings of Archer so his daughter can listen to them while he’s gone.

“She’ll remember him that way,” she said.

Monday’s ceremony at Indian Hills Community College had campus security scrambling to find enough parking for hundreds of cars streaming in. The fact that the gym was packed was not lost on the first speaker at the sendoff ceremony, Col. Greg Hapgood, the Iowa National Guard public affairs officer.

He said it was “heartwarming to see” the massive turnout from families and the community “to see these soldiers off to active duty.”

It shows appreciation for the challenges and dangers they’ll face, and “the sacrifices they are making not only for their country, but for each one of us.”

This will be Spc. Trey King’s first deployment.

“It’s always going to be hard, because it’s deployment,” said Alyshia Shanklin, King’s cousin. “We’ve always been there for each other. It will definitely be hard.”

She said it’s difficult to prepare for deployment, but she knows King has been trained and knows what he’s doing.

“He’ll make it through, and so will we,” she said.

The goodbyes were familiar to others as well. Now superintendent of Davis County schools, Dan Maeder shipped out to the Middle East with the unit during the Gulf War.

“Nobody knows more about the cost of freedom than these soldiers and these families,” he said as service members boarded the buses for Fort Bliss, Texas.

They’ll receive additional training, then ship out to Afghanistan. During the company’s last deployment in 2007, the sappers found and cleared nearly 130 IEDs along the Iraqi roads traveled by U.S. troops.

“Keep these soldiers safe,” prayed Chaplain (Major) Gary Selof.

But he also thanked God for the families, who he said sacrifice as much as their soldiers do.

Terri Davis took her husband, Staff Sgt. Michael Davis, to the armory Thursday morning so he could leave for Fort Bliss alongside three other men in the supply unit.

While he already served in Iraq in 2005, Terri said this is her first experience with deployment.

“The whole day I cried,” Terri said.

When she went to get her year’s membership at the Ottumwa YMCA, Terri said the receptionist mentioned that her husband had left for Afghanistan — and Terri broke down crying.

Thankfully, the family and friends left behind have Family Readiness Groups (FRGs) to help them through.

“Civilians don’t understand what we’re going through,” said Lisa Davis, Michael Davis’ cousin.

The family put a book together so King can look at photos of his 6-month-old daughter, Hailie.

“There’s a lot of firsts daddy is going to miss out on,” Lisa said.

The burden on the families is “perhaps the hardest,” said Altman.

“The families ... do not have to bear this alone. Your friends, your family, the community and the Iowa National Guard stand ready to [support] you,” Altman said. “This I promise.”

The tears from loved ones watching from the bleachers seemed to prove the point. When given the order to “fall out,” some family members grabbed their soldier as if they would never let go. Tears came from young and old, male and female, civilian and, in a few instances, the soldiers themselves.

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