About 150 California Army National Guard soldiers said goodbye to family and friends Sunday at the Clovis Veterans Memorial Building before heading out on a historic deployment to Iraq, where they will witness the war's end next year.
The men and women, members of the Guard's 40th Combat Aviation Brigade, will fly out of Fresno on Wednesday to join the rest of their brigade for about two months of training at Fort Hood, Texas.
Although the brigade is based in Fresno, its members live throughout the U.S.
Other than a quick trip home at Christmas, the soldiers will stay in Texas until they depart in January for the yearlong deployment.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
But Staff Sgt. Adam Wenzel of Clovis will have to miss another important family date.
"I'm not going to be here for graduation," said Wenzel, whose son, Anthony, 17, is a senior at Clovis High School.
It's the third Middle East deployment for Wenzel, 40, who served in Desert Storm in 1991 and in Iraq in 1994.
Deploying to a war zone is never easy, Wenzel said, "but I'm excited about closing the door [on the war]. It's a very historic deployment."
The 40th Combat Aviation Brigade will provide aviation services, from reconnaissance to security to air movements, during Operation New Dawn, the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq.
At the war's peak in 2007, the U.S. had 170,000 troops in Iraq. About 50,000 are deployed there now, seven years after the war's start. The Obama administration has set a timeline to complete the pullout of troops by the end of 2011.
Like the other soldiers, Sgt. 1st Class Renee Cates, 36, of Fresno was dressed in fatigues. She has been deployed before, to Kuwait in 2004. This time, however, she is going as a newlywed -- she and Jeremy Cates got married Sept. 4.
"I have mixed feelings, but I'm not scared," she said. "There's no sense in being scared."
Jeremy Cates, 35, isn't worried either. "She's been there before and she's explained how it works. She'll have good people around her," he said.
Capt. Keegan Smith's parents dropped him off for the farewell ceremony at the memorial building, while his wife, Amanda, stayed home with their two sons, ages 9 months and 3 years.
"It was easier. I'll be back for Christmas and we'll make that our time to say goodbye," said Smith, 36, a water polo coach at Jesuit High School in Carmichael.
Tonya Boynton of Elk Grove pushed a stroller holding her sleeping daughter, Autumn, 3 months, while her young sons clung to their dad, Capt. John Boynton, leaving for his first deployment.
"It's overwhelming," she said. "It's kind of scary to hold down the fort for a year without him." But friends from their church will help, and her mother is coming from North Dakota to stay for a while, Boynton said.
For 1st Sgt. Reggie Jones of Antelope, the deployment means getting closer to family. His wife, Command Sgt. Major Vickie Dunlap-Jones, has been in Iraq all year with the 224th Sustainment Brigade based in Long Beach.
They've talked about the significance of their first deployments. "It's like the capstone of our careers," Jones said. "It's real exciting to be part of it."