Kiss Me Before You Go

Medic Spc. Joseph Palmer and his daughter.

Medic Spc. Joseph Palmer and his daughter.

The Alabama National Guard’s 877th Engineer Battalion embarks on its third deployment.

Written by Tom Gordon
Photography by Beau Gustafson

Since 2003, thousands of Alabamians have attended a ritual called a send-off ceremony, an event that has been repeated dozens of times in armories, airfield hangars, and school gymnasiums across the state. Groups of men and women, sometimes in the hundreds, sometimes only a handful, wearing camouflage military uniforms, gather before friends and loved ones, local politicians and senior military officers, and are the recipients of prayers, praise, and wishes of good luck.

Then, in a matter of a few hours or days, they board buses or helicopters that take them to a distant military installation for a final round of training, after which they usually get a few days leave to come home. Then they reassemble, board a jet aircraft, fly to a time zone eight or nine hours away, and spend up to a year fulfilling whatever role has been assigned them in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You might think that ceremonies like these, involving Alabama Army National Guard soldiers or Reservists, are not taking place now because U.S. forces are out of Iraq and U.S. troops are steadily leaving Afghanistan.

But you’d be wrong.

The send-offs are still happening, and they are not new experiences to many of their participants. One such send-off took place last month, and it involved an Alabama National Guard unit that was part of the first year of the U.S. occupation in Iraq in 2003–2004 and supported the buildup of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2009–2010. And in between those deployments, soldiers with the 877th Engineer Battalion were part of the relief effort along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Now about 160 soldiers in two 877th companies will be returning to Afghanistan, this time primarily to direct the demolition of many camps and other military structures used by U.S. and coalition forces in the country. More than a few of those doomed structures are ones battalion soldiers put up the last time they were there. “We were one of the first units in the state to deploy to Iraq, and now we’re one of the last units to deploy in Afghanistan,” says the 877th’s commander, Lt. Col. Kelton Pankey of Elkmont, Ala. “It’s amazing to me.” Not many units have had or will be having this kind of full circle experience. Battalion soldiers have been affected by it in a myriad of ways, and so, too, have their families. It was impossible not to reflect upon that fact during the April 5 send-off ceremony for the one of the 877th’s companies and a small subordinate unit that will be deploying with it.

The setting was in the northwest corner of Winston County, in the gym of Haleyville Middle School. Small U.S. flags lined the driveway outside and a big flag hung from the wall in the back of the gym. The Afghanistan-bound soldiers, members of Headquarters Company and the 1305th Survey and Design Team, sat in beige metal folding chairs on the gym floor. Around them, on red-painted bleachers, sat friends and family members, as well as retired 877th soldiers and uniformed members of battalion companies who will not be making this deployment.

A walk among these soldiers would bring you in contact with folks who have made the 877th’s previous two deployments and who will be making this one. Their hair is thinning or has taken on a little gray; their faces are a little fuller and have more age lines. Some of them no longer have the spouses they had when they deployed to Iraq in 2003. Some of them have children they did not have in 2003 or when they left for Afghanistan in 2009. Many were kids that first time, looking up to veteran NCOs and officers for guidance, and did a lot of heavy lifting on missions. Now they are the ones who will give direction to the kids whom they now lead. While their family and personal circumstances may differ, they all share memories of the previous two deployments. And on those deployments, just about everyone in the 877th—between 500 and 600 soldiers—did the tour of duty.

Sgt. 1st Class Eric Terrell with his mother (left) and his wife, April (right).

Sgt. 1st Class Eric Terrell with his mother (left) and his wife, April (right).

Headquarters Company commander Capt. Wesley Madison, 34, will be a three-tour veteran when he returns next year. In 2003–2004, he was a specialist with the 877th’s Alpha Company—he wears a Screaming Eagle patch that reflects the battalion’s work during that time with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. One of his assignments during that first tour was driving a bulldozer to help put up long protective barriers or berms along the Syrian border to stop the influx of enemy fighters into northern Iraq; the effort drew hostile fire. Madison also made the Afghan deployment in 2009–2010 as a second lieutenant and platoon leader. He considers his battalion to have been blessed because none of its soldiers was killed during its deployments. “Iraq was a lot more dangerous because we weren’t equipped. We weren’t prepared for Iraq,” Madison says. “We had soft-shelled vehicles. We didn’t have the correct body armor, and we didn’t do things the way we are now. We’re trained a whole lot better and [in Iraq] we were just…” He trails off, chuckling. “You know, God had to take care of us. We had mortars. One would hit this roof and go off and [another] would hit the one where the people were at and it wouldn’t go off, just bounce around. We were just blessed all the way through, and that’s the way it’s always been.

“Even on the last deployment, I had a convoy, and we were going through a bad part of town, the Tangi Valley, one of the worst places in Afghanistan and every other vehicle got hit by IEDs [improvised explosive devices], and none of our people got hit.” Madison, who lives in Northport, Ala., has been in the Guard 13 years. When he joined, neither he nor anyone else could foresee what was coming, and he’s tried to be philosophical about what he’s done and what he’s about to do in Afghanistan. “[If] you start wondering about politics or why you’re doing something, you’ll drive yourself crazy,” he says. “Just salute, ‘Yes sir, and we’ll take care of it.’ It’s one of those things. We’re tearing things down and going to leave it like we weren’t even there. That’s the way they want it.”

The mission is likely to be a vast one. That’s why hundreds of other Guard soldiers from places all over, including Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, will be involved, working under the 877th’s command. Madison views his biggest mission as taking care of the soldiers in his charge—reducing the risk and relieving the stress—especially the young ones, for whom the deployment will be the first. “They don’t have any idea what to expect,” he says.

Someone Madison could probably put in the same category is his 29-year-old wife, Jenna; they just got married in March. For their marriage, he says, the deployment will be a test. “If she wasn’t the woman that she is, I wouldn’t get married,” he says. “My advice to all soldiers is, ‘Do not get married before you deploy.’ They always say the first year is the hardest, and you really don’t know each other, but we’ve been dating for about three years now, and she’s just an unbelievable person, one of the best people I’ve ever met. We already had pretty much everything set up before we found out I was going to deploy, and we just carried out a plan.”

As the send-off ceremony unfolded, Jenna was in the bleachers, taking pictures with a digital camera and trying, with mixed success, to keep her emotions in check. “I knew this was going to come up eventually, but I didn’t realize it would be this soon after we got married,” she explains. “I don’t know. There’s just a lot of apprehension, a lot of fear going into it.” But she says she has been comforted by the discussions she has had with her husband and the support she has from relatives, friends, and the unit’s family readiness group. The prospect, too, of frequent conversation opportunities with her husband—something that limited technology would  have made more difficult during his first deployment—has been another psychological boost.

On the opposite side of the gym, Amy Hollis of Sulligent, Ala., and her mother-in-law, Brenda Gilliland, took seats in a row about midway up. They watched as Gilliland’s son and Hollis’s husband of 20 years, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Hollis, moved around the gym floor, helping with ceremony preparations. The forthcoming deployment will be the Hollis family’s third rodeo, as Jeremy would call it, and Hollis said it was going to be the hardest, but not because her husband wouldn’t be around to cut her hair and make daily phone calls to his mom. The chief reason is that the couple’s daughters, Montana and Mendy, are now 17 and 14, much older than they were when their father left for Iraq in 2003. “They didn’t really understand what was going on,” Hollis says. “But they’re older and know now what their daddy’s going to be doing, and realize more, especially the youngest one. She’s a daddy’s girl. And she’s already rebelled more than Montana, so, yeah, this is going to be a challenge for me and her both.”

When Maj. Alexander Shaw deployed the first time, he had no children. Now he and his wife, Chan, have three: Neal, 8; Owen, 2; and Courtney, 1.

When Maj. Alexander Shaw deployed the first time, he had no children. Now he and his wife, Chan, have three: Neal, 8; Owen, 2; and Courtney, 1.

“A 3-year-old back talking is cute,” Jeremy had explained earlier. “A 14-year-old back talking is not so cute.” After forecasting how the deployment was likely to affect her youngest daughter, Hollis reflected on how her husband’s two previous deployments and the maturing that comes with the passage of time has affected her. “I’m more independent,” she says. “I don’t rely on anybody. People [will] say, ‘Call me if you need anything.’ Everybody tells you that. But being an Army wife, you don’t call anybody. You don’t like to be told what to do.” At the same time, she said she and Jeremy communicate more. “Before we would do whatever we wanted to and not really worry about the consequences,” she says. “But now we discuss things a lot more, especially with the girls and stuff.”

Montana will be a high school senior this fall. While her father expects to be back in time for her graduation, he’ll miss other signature events of that year, among them the senior prom. Perhaps because of Jeremy’s deployments, as well as his full-time job as a trainer for the 877th, Montana’s boyfriend has expressed an interest in joining the military. Hollis is trying to talk him out of it, not wanting Montana to become a military spouse. “She has had to live it all of her life,” she explains. “I don’t want her to have to live it more.”

At the time of its first deployment, the ranks of the 877th largely reflected the northwest Alabama area in which it was based. Many, if not a majority, of its soldiers came from communities like Carbon Hill, Jasper, Fayette, Berry, Hamilton, Guin, Winfield, Sulligent, Haleyville, Brilliant, Vernon, Bankston, Boldo, Glen Allen, Detroit, Nauvoo, and Spruce Pine. Siblings, cousins, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, people who worked in the same plant or lived on the same street were all part of it. Year after year, they drilled one weekend a month in the same nearby armories, and many preferred to stay close to home rather than move to another, more distant Guard unit where the possibilities for promotion might have been better. In 2003, the average age in the battalion was about 43. Some 877th members had been kid soldiers in Vietnam, and some were veterans of the Desert Storm effort to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. The 877th’s average age is about 30 now, and its soldiers hail from many other places besides northwest Alabama.

Deployment and redeployments have become old hat for many Alabama Air and National Guard soldiers over the last decade, but in 2003, the 877th’s activation for an assignment in Iraq sent tremors of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear in the communities in which its soldiers lived and worked. Karen Tucker, of Carbon Hill, Ala., remembers it well. Her former husband Tim, at that time a specialist in the 877th, drove a truck and hauled loads long distances, and she and the couple’s two daughters were accustomed to handling things while he was gone. “I knew other women who didn’t do anything, who never paid a bill, who never went out and purchased anything,” Tucker says. “Their husbands did everything. For those people, [the deployment] stopped them dead in their tracks. They had to completely learn a new way of life. And I don’t think our soldiers were prepared for it either because they were used to disaster relief and emergency things here.”

“It was sort of a new experience for all of us, I guess, when you get down to it,” says retired Guard Col. Randy Martin, who was the 877th’s commander in 2003. The experience did not end after the soldiers came home in the spring of 2004. Whether it was due to changes they had undergone while they were separated, or because the deployment intensified already existing problems, more than a few couples, including the Tuckers, found they could not stay together.

Now, as 877th soldiers prepare to fly the unit’s guidon in Afghanistan one more time, some of those family strains familiar to battalion veterans are roiling some of the young soldiers in the ranks. “Some of my soldiers’ spouses don’t want them to go,” Jeremy said a few weeks before the send-off ceremony. “There already are people out there talking about divorce, and we ain’t even left.” In response, Jeremy said he has tried to make himself available to troubled couples. “It’s like I told one of my young soldiers. I said, ‘Hey, I want to go to dinner with you and your spouse. It’s on me. We’ll go eat steak, whatever you want to do…let’s just go talk. If she’s got any questions, write ’em down…ask me, and I’ll give you an answer.’”

Capt. Wesley Madison with his wife, Jenna.

Capt. Wesley Madison with his wife, Jenna.

For the next few weeks at Fort Bliss, the 877th soldiers will continue to train so they can successfully and safely carry out their assignment. At home, their families won’t have the same amount of training to see their way through the deployment. Some at-home spouses, because they have had a deployment under their belt, expect to put that experience, especially some of its bumpy parts, to use. Battalion Command Sgt. Major Bobby Treece, who hails from Addison in Winston County, said he and his wife, Tina, have “lots” of lessons learned from his 2009–2010 deployment to Afghanistan. “The last time I told her, ‘Hey look, this is where you cut all the water off. This is where everything is.’ And it didn’t really dawn on her,” Treece said. “So three months after we’re there [in Afghanistan], there was a water issue, and she still didn’t know where to cut it off.” Afterward, Treece says, his wife put together a diagram showing “where all this stuff’s at, and she knows where the barn water cutoff is, she knows where the house water cutoff is, she knows who to call, she’s got a list of numbers.”

Despite all the blueprints, call lists, support from others and even the presence of children, the experience for spouses can be a very lonely one. Just ask Sherrie Crawford. Her husband, Jasper Police Officer Mike Crawford, did the 2003–2004 and 2009–2010 deployments. He retired from the Guard last year. “People do not know the loneliness you feel,” Crawford wrote in an email. “You put on a smile, but inside you are dying. Even down to the smallest things. I remember coming home one day from buying groceries. I was so tired and when I pulled in the driveway, I broke down crying because I had no one to help me.” Then there was the middle of one night, during her husband’s second deployment, when she suddenly awoke, thinking she had heard the front doorbell. A subliminal fear of anyone who sends a loved one to a war zone is the visit of a notification team to tell them that their loved one is dead. While Mike had been in his final weeks of training before the deployment, a team had paid a visit to the wife of Crawford’s 23-year-old cousin, Army Spc. Charles “Dusty” Parrish, after he had been killed in Iraq. For a few frantic moments, until she emerged from the fog of sleep to clarity of mind, she thought such a team was at her door.

“There are so many things that go along with war, things that would be very hard for someone to understand or even think about who has not personally been affected,” Crawford said. “You both have to go through so many changes and adjustments.”

Writer Tom Gordon spent six weeks in the summer of 2003 embedded with the 877th Engineer Battalion in northern Iraq while working as  a reporter for The Birmingham News.

The photos in color below were taken at the first deployment in 2003:

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