Area Guardsmen bid farewell to family, friends

Going to the Gulf 202nd Red Horse Squadron latest unit to deploy


Newlywed Krista Hoffman, left, rests her head on the shoulder of her husband Michael, Monday during a deployment ceremony at Camp Blanding east of Starke. Jorgensen is part of the 202nd Red Horse brigade from Camp Blanding which shipped out for the middle east Monday afternoon. Family members had a chance to eat lunch and say farewell at the Red Horse headquarters at Camp Blanding.

Jim Matthews/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, April 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 31, 2003 at 11:15 p.m.
CAMP BLANDING - Chilled as much by the cold reality of war as by noontime temperatures in the mid-50s, about 45 newly deployed Florida National Guardsmen, their family and friends exchanged emotional goodbyes Monday as the soldiers departed for the Persian Gulf region.
"This is tough, really tough," Joan Hoffman of Starke said softly as she tearfully watched her 32-year-old son, Staff Sgt. Michael Hoffman, cling tightly to Krista - his wife of five months - before breaking away and boarding a military bus to Jacksonville International Airport.
"I'd rather go in his place," said Hoffman's father, Russ. "They don't let the veterans do it. They keep sending the young ones."
His son and other members of the 202nd Red Horse Squadron of the Florida Air National Guard were the latest units of the state Guard to deploy, and among the first to go since the shooting started in the war with Iraq. The squadron, headquartered at this sprawling base eight miles east of Starke, was headed to an undisclosed location in the Persian Gulf region in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The unit is made up of heavy-construction engineers who specialize in "horizontal" projects such as building and repairing concrete pads for airfields, said Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Ron Tittle. They'll be gone for up to a year, he said.
"Thank you for your determined resolve to bring victory to this nation," Brig. Gen. Emmet Titshaw, assistant adjutant general for the Florida National Guard, told the troops during a brief departure ceremony outside the unit's headquarters.
Before the ceremony, the soldiers and their families shared a lunch of roast beef subs in the unit's mess hall. Most of the soldiers wore civilian clothes because they were scheduled to fly out of Jacksonville on a commercial plane to a departure point somewhere on the East Coast.
Several soldiers and their families said the separation was especially emotional in the wake of nearly two weeks of sobering images and reports from the battlefield.
"It's a little more difficult now to see them leave," said Charlene Liston of Lake City before bidding farewell to her husband, Staff Sgt. Christopher Liston. "I'm trying to be supportive - through my crying."
Their 10-year-old daughter, Chelsea, dealt with her father's departure differently.
"I'm not that emotional," she said as she fingered her foot-long sandwich. "I'm sad, but I'm not crying."
Nor was her dad, who has been in the National Guard almost 16 years.
"It doesn't bother me," said Liston, 33. "I'm ready to go. It's my job."
Staff Sgt. Bill Copeland, 48, of Alachua called the deployment "the real deal" that has become more real in recent days.
"(In pre-war deployments) there was speculation. Now we've got casualties and people in harm's way," said Copeland, a 202nd heavy-equipment operator who is leaving behind an agriculture business he runs with his wife and some of their seven children.
"We still joke a lot in the unit, but we know this is dead serious," he said. "Our determination is probably stronger and there's more purpose in what we do."
Eva Copeland said running the family business - J.F. Copeland Farms, which specializes in fertilizer application - "definitely will be more stressful."
Her husband's deployment was the second for the family in as many days. On Sunday, Jed Copeland, a son in the U.S. Marine Reserves, left for active duty.
"He's headed in the direction of Kuwait," Eva Copeland said.
"It's difficult," she said, her uncertainty showing as she looked at her husband. "We've gotten to the point where all our children have moved out, so it'll be hard being home by myself, just missing him."
Staff Sgt. Jim Patterson of Gainesville, 42, is single and worked for Ecopest before his deployment. A veteran of Desert Storm, he said that experience 12 years ago made leaving this time fractionally easier.
"But I'm still a weekend warrior, so there is a little dose of apprehension," said Patterson, a heavy-equipment operator in the 202nd's airfields section. "But a little apprehension might be good to help keep us alert."
As the bus drove off, every window was filled with hands waving to teary family and friends. Those left behind fanned their goodbyes until the bus was out of sight - and then started counting the days until its return.
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 374-5042 or arndorb@gvillesun.com.

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