Sunday morning I attended the deployment ceremony for the Carbondale armory’s Illinois National Guardsmen, who will join roughly 2,700 other Illinois National Guardsmen and women to deploy to Afghanistan. It will be the largest number of Illinois National Guardsmen to deploy since World War II. The ceremony was held at the Carbondale Civic Center but didn’t include punch and pie.
It began and ended with voices from behind the podium filling the room while family and friends sat soberly behind the 40 or more members of Company C. The guardsmen and women stood in formation as their orders were read. Beyond the voices from the podium, the room was relatively quiet with the exception of a baby crying and sniffling as the speakers made their points clear; this group would be out of CONUS (military jargon for the continental United States) for more than a year, and the separation will be felt.
It was at once both very familiar and very alien to me. Familiar because I, too, once stood at attention while deployment orders were read aloud, and alien because sometimes it’s as if I never did. As they stood there in camouflage fatigues and brown, soft-leather desert boots, I couldn’t help but think about the five years I served in uniform, during one of which I nearly wore out a pair of those brown leather boots. What I thought about most was how surreal it is to be in those boots.
That day, that hour, those minutes until the ceremony finishes, the deployment orders do not feel like much more than the commands from an instructor or professor on campus. An assignment is given, a due date is set and while the deadline looms, a certain amount of procrastination and anxiety combines to fill the space. Today, tomorrow feels far away. Tomorrow, yesterday feels like, well, yesterday. And when the day arrives and the assignment is due, it always appears that not enough time was given for a task so large.
After the ceremony, I spoke with several members of the departing company and asked them what they will miss most. “Family and friends,” said Sgt. Amanda Reardon from Murphysboro. She has served 3 1/2 years in the National Guard, and this is her first deployment. I thought about how the title “sergeant” preceding her name depersonalized who she is and how in print, the reader might easily gloss over and move on; “just another soldier off to war.”
But just last fall, Reardon was a student at SIUC, and she’s not alone. She and the rest of her company are not just military jargon; they are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, and yes, college students. When they join the more than 2,000 other guardsmen – and women – entirely from Illinois, they will make up the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and will deploy to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Their deployment will surely create a little noise in the national news while we here might think, “just more soldiers off to war.” And when they are deployed, I think it might be easy to forget that behind the military titles our Illinoisan brothers and sisters serve our nation’s interests in those brown leather boots, and that it is very real.