Troops, families deal with activation

Published: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 12:56 a.m.

PENSACOLA - Staff Sgt. Curtis McQuaid deployed overseas to Bosnia, Korea and Saudi Arabia during 11 years of active duty with the Army. That was something he thought he probably would avoid when he joined the National Guard.

Married and the father of five, McQuaid has since received what he says is a ''very rude, very sudden'' awakening.

He spent the past week packing for another deployment as part of the Florida National Guard's biggest call-up since World War II.

Already a veteran of the war against terrorism as an airport security screener in civilian life, McQuaid is among 1,200 Florida guardsmen leaving behind their civilian jobs and families.

They are due to arrive Sunday at Fort Stewart, Ga., to begin further training before receiving an undisclosed assignment. With terrorism still a threat and another war against Iraq looming, the possibilities include overseas deployment or a domestic mission.

McQuaid, 34, of Pensacola, said the Florida guardsmen compare well with their active-duty counterparts.

The Floridians who have been activated are members of the 124th Infantry Regiment's 2nd Brigade in Orlando and its 3rd Brigade in the Panhandle, including armories in Tallahassee, Panama City and Pensacola.

They represent a wide cross-section of the population: students, government employees, construction workers, law enforcement officers and even a state legislator, Rep. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, who serves as a first sergeant. As an infantry unit, however, there are no women.

Some guardsmen are grizzled veterans such as McQuaid and others are rookies fresh out of basic training. Many have spent years training without being called up except for hurricanes and other in-state emergencies.

''I'm excited about it to tell you the truth,'' said Spec. Keith Howey, 22, who grew up in Scranton, Pa., but now lives in Pensacola. ''This is my chance to put all my training to work.''

Until his activation, Howey had a full-time job installing counter tops while taking classes at Pensacola Junior College. He is deferring plans to transfer to Florida State University.

No one relishes combat, said Capt. Gil Petruska, a company commander from Pensacola.

''But the fact is these guys have been training for years to do a job,'' he said. ''Whatever it is, we'll do it. . . . Whether or not we go to war, that's not for me to worry about.''

Petruska, 35, has a wife and two young children. He is leaving a job as a civilian research analyst for the Naval Education and Training Command at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

The deployment will mean greater family responsibilities for guardsmen's wives. Petruska said each soldier has a family care plan to help spouses deal with matters such as mortgage payments. The Guard also has counselors and a hot line.

''Whether it's a hurricane or this, we have a requirement to make sure the families are ready,'' Petruska said.

The call-up also means many employers must do without key workers such as Sgt. 1st Class Michael Boddy, 39, of Pensacola. The married father of two is training director for Santa Rosa County Tax Collector Robert McClure. Boddy said McClure has been supportive.

''As soon as I mentioned the fact I was being deployed, it was like 'Don't worry, we're just looking forward to having you back,' '' Boddy said.

Capt. Rodney Sanchez, 37, a company commander from Jacksonville, has a wife and three children and works as a special agent for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

''A lot of the soldiers expressed some concerns, some nervousness,'' Sanchez said Friday at the guard's Tallahassee armory. ''A lot of them are really motivated. They're really excited.''

That includes Pfc. Josh Odom, 20, a karate teacher who graduated from Tallahassee Community College last month and plans to study criminology at Florida State.

Odom said he hasn't given much thought to the possible danger, but his mother, Sherry Coombs, has.

''We've never been apart really,'' she said. ''I didn't anticipate that he would ever be deployed as a national guardsman. You know, this was helping out with school.''

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