'Peace a scarce commodity'
It takes a lot to make a soldier cry.
Combat won't do it. The uncertaintly of a mission halfway around the world is seemingly taken in stride.
But those teddy bears will get a guy...
Friday evening, a crowd of hundreds packed the Storm Lake Armory to capacity to send off 41 more members of the National Guard unit for a likely year of service in a United Nations peacekeeping mission in volatile Kosovo, packing flags, family tee-shirts emblazoned with "Supporting Our Troops" in proud gold lettering, and a thunderous round of applause to offer the soldiers standing at attention.
When it was all over, the soldiers were given yellow roses to present to their wives and mothers, and specially-made white teddy bears with patriotic touches - one to give to each of the children they may not see again for a year or more.
Those teddy bears - that's when soldiers cry.
In the precious moments between the public sendoff ceremony and the boarding of a bus to ferry the Guardsmen off to Indiana for infantry training, they held children to their chests and clung to wives, girfriends and mothers - as if soaking up a year's worth of contact to take away with them.
"It's going to be hard. All you can do is focus on the mission we are trained to do, and have the people back home focus on their day to day lives," one of the men said. "This is the sacrifice every one of us knew was possible when we signed up."
"It seems like so long. Our son hasn't had a dry eye since yesterday. We'll get through it, and realize that many other military families have had it much worse than this situation," said one of the wives, who is enduring a second year-long deployment in three years. "Tomorrow when we wake up and he's not there again, then it's going to hit us."
She left early - not inclined to bear the experience of watching her husband's bus disappear into the distance again.
Governor Chet Culver had hoped to attend the sendoff, but when he was unable to make it, sent a letter to be read.
"You represent the best our state and nation have to offer. The two words - thank you - do not seem sufficient," he wrote.
Local Congressman Steve King also could not attend, as he is embarking on his own visit to the Iraq region.
Several Iowa military leaders spoke, as well as Mayor Pro Tem Denny Vaudt, representing the community. All of them repeated a similar message - that the Storm Lake area will watch over the men's loved ones while they are gone.
Brigadier General Steven D. Saunders, who heads the Iowa National Guard's readiness. training and education efforts and is a veteran of service in Kosovo himself, gave the keynote address, dressed in the same fatigues as the men standing before him.
In postwar Kosovo, where factions remain at a tense standoff in the elusive effort to establish independence, the United Nations still has not determined the future course of the government. Various international organizations each have their own agenda's in the region. "Peace is a scarce commodity," Saunders said of the area, where the Storm Lake men will join peacekeeper groups from multiple nations to protect the public and enforce U.N. directives.
"You will be missing birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and championship ballgames," Saunders told the men. "Gentlemen, I wish you the best. Godspeed. For the rest of you, keep them in your hearts - I know you will. Don't let them down. And they will not let you down."
Meanwhile, next week, 25 local Guard soldiers are scheduled to return home from 18 months deployment that has included dangerous service in Iraq. Just about as many new soldiers have joined the Guard, and are currently training at boot camp. The Storm Lake unit has been called on repeatedly since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, contributing two full deplaoyment and bands of soldiers in support of nearly every U.S. deployment in those years.
Finally, the flags are put away, the crowds have filtered away, the olive drab gear bags are stowed and the tears wiped. The men file onto a charter bus out behind the armory.
And standing by, in a flag-colored outfit, a child watched on stoically, holding on desperately to a teddy bear that drags on the hot cement. It is a creature likely to absorb its share of tears over the year it is on duty looking after a family split by duty.