Deploying Soldiers: 'We Have a Mission'

By Steve Vogel
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Last week, on a splendid night for baseball, thousands of fans poured out from the Metro station at RFK Stadium and walked down East Capitol Street, on their way to watch the Washington Nationals take on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Unnoticed by most of the fans, a relatively small number veered off from the crowd and turned into the D.C. Armory.

Inside the hot building, families and friends were gathering to say farewell to the soldiers of the D.C. Army National Guard's 275th Military Police Company. The soldiers would be leaving at 3 the next morning, May 31, for Camp Shelby, Miss., in preparation for deployment to Iraq.

For many Americans, the cost and burdens of the war in Iraq pass unnoticed, leaving them free to go to ballgames.

Not so for those serving in the National Guard and Reserve and their families. The Guard and Reserve make up close to 25 percent of U.S. forces deployed overseas, and thousands of them have come from Maryland, Virginia and the District.

The ceremony May 30 for the 275th followed a similar deployment the previous week for the Maryland Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment, which is sending 640 troops to Iraq, including a company from Silver Spring.

"We've never depended on the Guard more," D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said at the ceremony for the 275th, with the soldiers standing in formation. "We couldn't do it without the Guard."

The 130 soldiers of the company were leaving behind husbands, wives and children for 12 months or more. Cpl. Clarence Weaver hugged his 7-year-old son, Miles, after the ceremony. "Hey, man, I'm going to miss you," Weaver said. "You're going to be good."

Spec. Edward Lartey, 38, was holding his 1-year-old daughter, Elise, while his 2-year-old son, Elias, played at his feet. "No one really wants to go, but we have a mission," he said. "That's been my mind-set."

"Guard is tough," Norton told the audience during an emotional address bidding farewell to the 275th. "Guard is ready, and always has been.

"But it is a great deal to expect of you -- spouses, sweethearts, children. . . . It's another thing to ask you to be all of that," Norton said.

The families of the 275th would be awaiting the return of their loved ones, Norton said: "They are ours. We want them back, each and every one of them."

Pictures of Sacrifice

Marine Capt. Brian Letendre and his wife, Autumn, would sometimes visit Arlington National Cemetery, soaking in the history and atmosphere of sacrifice told by hundreds of thousands of gravestones.

"We'd walked through these grounds," Autumn Letendre, 29, recalled recently. On those walks, Brian Letendre, who grew up in Woodbridge and graduated from Potomac High School, expressed his hope to one day be buried at Arlington

That day came just over a year ago. On his second tour in Iraq, Letendre, 27, was killed by a suicide bomber on May 3, 2006, in Anbar province.

At Letendre's funeral at Arlington, his 3-year-old son, Dillon, was presented with a folded American flag by his uncle, a Marine corporal. That moment is captured in a new book, "Where Valor Rests: Arlington National Cemetery," which was published last month by National Geographic Books.

During a ceremony at Arlington on May 18 marking the book's release, Autumn Letendre, accompanied by Dillon, received a commemorative copy of the book.

Over the past two years, a team of accomplished military and civilian photographers took more than 30,000 photos depicting almost every aspect of life and death at Arlington: The ceremony and the sadness. The horse-drawn caissons and the mourners. The changing of the seasons and the timeless beauty and dignity.

"A lot of love, a lot of sweat, a lot of tears" went into the project, said John C. Metzler Jr., superintendent of the cemetery.

The resulting book, with an essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Washington Post staff writer Rick Atkinson, is to be presented to the families of every service member killed while serving on active duty during the terrorism fight and subsequently interred at Arlington.

"This legacy you give us tonight will be passed on from generation to generation," acting Secretary of the Army Pete Geren said to the audience. "It's truly a piece of art."

Autumn Letendre accepted her copy of the book on behalf of Marine families. "It's very emotional," she said. "It brings back memories."

Mike and Jacqueline Chavis of Reston, parents of Airman 1st Class LeeBernard Chavis, a District native who was killed by a sniper in Baghdad in October 2006, accepted a book on behalf of Air Force families.

"It's an honorable thing to do," Jacqueline Chavis said of the book project. "We both know nothing will take the place of him."

Army Command Sgt. Maj. Debra L. Strickland, wife of Army Sgt. Maj. Larry L. Strickland, who died in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon in 2001, accepted a book on behalf of Army families.

Laura Youngblood, wife of Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Travis L. Youngblood, was presented with a book on behalf of Navy families. Her husband died in July 2005 of wounds received when a makeshift bomb exploded during operations in Hit.

Representing the Coast Guard was Patricia Bruckenthal, wife of Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal, who was killed in April 2004 in a suicide attack on a Coast Guard vessel.

Sales of the commercial version of the book will be used to fund the publication of commemorative copies given to families.

Military Matters appears in the Extra on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Vogel can be reached

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