"It's important work. The world is watching. They are well-trained. They are ready to go. Their morale is high. Thanks for supporting these American heroes. We're sending them off as heroes and we're going to make sure they return as heroes."
The soldiers did appear to be gung-ho about their deployment, answering commanders with fierce "ROC on" responses shouted in unison, a reference to their mission as a Rear Operations Center. The battalion is trained to provide a variety of support functions for soldiers in the battles, everything from paperwork to maintaining a safe perimeter around a base camp.
Many days away from Iraq
Of course, these troops are still many days away from actually being shipped to Iraq. First, they're headed to Camp Atterbury in Indiana for up to six weeks of training. Many were making hopeful plans to see relatives again at Thanksgiving before deployment to the Middle East.
"Our mission won't be detailed until we're actually on the ground," said Master Sgt. James Stinnett, one of seven Mercer countians in the battalion, which also includes two soldiers from Garrard County. "The training we've had is going to prepare us for whatever we're going over there to do."
Stinnett has been in the Guard for 21 years but this is his first deployment. Twice before, his unit was put on alert, but never had to pack their bags.
"The third time is the charm, I guess," said Stinnett, 38, who is leaving his wife, Kim, and three children behind. "Ever since 9/11, we knew it would just be a matter of time."
With Iraq a central focus in a polarizing presidential campaign that is coming to a head, it's important that members of his unit not get too wrapped up in the politics and news of the day, Stinnett said. "Whether our commander-in-chief is President Bush or President Kerry, we're all going to follow our orders," he said.
The often negative news coming from Iraq is balanced by the good will shown toward the soldiers when they are out and about in the community, Stinnett said, and makes it easier to look beyond the political turmoil.
"When you go out in uniform to lunch or whatever, the support we get from the community is just great," Stinnett said.
Two youngest members are 19
At 19, specialists Dani Wamsley and Ashley Black are the two youngest members of the 206th. The Harrodsburg residents both said they signed up for the Guard after 9/11 and knew they'd likely be sent to where the action is. "I wanted to be part of serving my country, sir," said Black, who kept her game face on despite admitting to being a little worried about her deployment. "It's my job, sir. If you're not scared, you're not human. I'm nervous and excited. It's an adrenaline rush."
Black's aunt, Keawanna Garrison, was among family members there to see her off. Garrison said she's very proud of her niece, but also worried. "You never know what could happen," Garrison said. "All you can do is pray."
The battalion was first put on alert in May that it would be deployed, so members have had time to prepare. Wamsley said she's tried to avoid news about the war as much as possible in order to keep her spirits up.
"I don't really watch the news too much. The news is all negative, so I try to stay away from it. It's depressing," said Wamsley, adding she will miss her dog Tater most of all while she's gone. "I'm not too worried, probably not as worried as I should be. I'm going with a lot of great people who really know their stuff. I think we'll be OK."