“Daddy, daddy!” the 16-month-old Ava hollered out from her seat as her father was ceremoniously handed the North Carolina state flag, which will accompany the 30 or so troops from the 210th National Guard unit on their yearlong tour.
“It’ll be hard,” said his wife, Courtney Rossi, 26.
It’s the second time her husband has been sent away during wartime. The last time James Rossi was a bald-headed recruit heading to Iraq in 2004, right after the onset of fighting there. This time, James Rossi has a college degree and more responsibilities, like his wife and his 16-month-old daughter Ava.
“We’re just proud of him,” Courtney said. “The sooner it starts, the sooner they get back.”
The troops in the National Guard’s 210th Military Police Company hail from several communities in Western North Carolina, including Sylva, Franklin, Bryson City and Cherokee. They are being sent first for training in Texas then on to the Middle East. As military police, their specialty is security detail.
Although it may seem counterintuitive — deploying more soldiers into a country where the U.S. military presence is supposedly winding down — Capt. Rick Scoggins, a spokesperson for the guard, explained that’s in fact why they’re being sent there. Beside base security, military police play an important role in necessary customs inspections of thousands of troops as they are brought back home from Afghanistan.
In other words, they’ll be facilitating the withdrawal, Scoggins said.
“They’re really and truly helping to assist other units to redeploy back to the U.S.” Scoggins said. “To reduce the footprint in Afghanistan.”
The 210th troops will join the ranks of more than 800 other N.C. National Guard forces serving oversees — scattered across the globe in Kuwait, Afghanistan, the horn of Africa and Kosovo.
The 210th military police will serve out a year stint, although not all of that time will be spent in Afghanistan. Another North Carolina company, the 211th, will be called up in coming months as well, Scoggins said.
The reserve soldiers lined up and moving in step at the ceremony in Sylva didn’t resemble the latest graduating class from boot camp. They range in age from 19 to nearly 40 years old and represent seasoned veterans to greenhorns.
Many have steady jobs, families and a normal life — all of which will be put on hold for the time being while they are away.
One of the speakers at the ceremony, Army Lt. Col. Jerry Baird, urged the soldiers to take advantage of advances in technology to maintain contact with their families during their deployments. Skype, email and chat can make serving on a desolate base in a war-torn country across the world seem a little less distant.
“Today, 6,000 miles away is not the same as 6,000 miles away in World War II,” Baird said. “And just remember your family are the ones that are going to be waiting for you when you get home.”
At the age of 37, Samuel Long will be embarking on his third tour in the Middle East. Long, who lives in Sylva, served in Iraq in 2004 and Afghanistan in 2010. This upcoming tour will be the third time he has had to leave his family behind for the call of duty.
Except, this time around, Long said he also feels more confident about this upcoming deployment than he did about going to Iraq in 2004, when he was 27 years old. He is also more comfortable with the nature of this mission, than being sent to Iraq just as the war there was escalating nine years ago.
“With my training and my experience, I’m much more confident than I was as a 27-year old kid,” Long said.
It’s actually his eldest son of three children, heading into high school next school year, who is taking the prospect of his father being away the hardest, Long said. He will also be leaving behind a wife.
“It’s difficult leaving the family,” Long said. “The two youngest are handling it really well — the oldest knows more about what goes on.”
While Long knows, more or less, what to expect out of this deployment, 17 of the approximately 30 troops in the 210th going to Afghanistan are being called up for the first time in their military careers.
Long will be serving alongside troops in the company who are nearly 20 years his minor. But they’ll make it through, he said.
“Someone once said, you have to go to war to have war stories, so they’ll do just fine,” Long said.