Yesterday came the morning of the last goodbyes. Families clung together. Lovers hugged. Delicia, a supply specialist in fatigues with a duffel bag over her shoulder, spent the final hours comforting her husband of five months.
"He's like my baby; and now my baby's being left behind," said the soldier, clinging to her 33-year-old husband before she disappeared into a 60-truck convoy of reservists headed for Operation Desert Shield.
Through billowing diesel smoke and honking horns, the 547th Truck Company rolled out of the D.C. National Guard Armory yesterday to whooping cheers and frantic waves of red-eyed relatives.
Until the very last minute, some of the 120 men and women of the 547th held back to brush a baby's cheek or to kiss a loved one as an Army band played the ceremonial "Ruffles and Flourishes" and "God Bless America."
Amid the patriotic fanfare, there was uncertainty, a little fear and tears.
For many, the emotional farewells suddenly brought home the reality of the crisis in the Middle East.
"That's my only son," said one gray-haired mother who tried to slip behind a chain-link fence to get a better view of her 29-year-old son as he boarded a dark-green truck with a revving engine. She was gently pulled back by military police.
"Take care of yourself, you hear," the mother called out hoarsely.
In a brief ceremony, a chaplain in military uniform prayed for the soldiers, for their loved ones and for a "quick and just peace in the Middle East." The crowd said, "Amen."
The 547th, which will serve as a combat support unit, is one of the few military reserve units that have not conducted their annual training overseas in recent years, military officials said. One of its primary missions has been to support the District police in its war on drugs. The soldiers, whose full names are not being used for security reasons, have helped board up crack houses, conduct aerial surveillance and run a hot line on illegal drug activities.
Maj. Gen. Calvin G. Franklin, commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, told the soldiers that he was confident the company would do "an outstanding job."
"You've demonstrated time and time again that you can do your job," said the general, presenting the company commander with a District flag to be flown over their area of operation.
The soldiers loaded their trucks. Then the convoy roared out of the armory parking lot for the four-hour drive down Interstate 95 to Fort Pickett, Va. From there, the general said, the company would be sent overseas. No one could say for how long.
One soldier's wife said she figured her husband, a sergeant first class, would be gone for Thanksgiving, Christmas and all of their three young children's birthdays next month. She said she was trying hard not to cry in order to keep her children from crying. Her children now watch the evening news instead of cartoons, she said.
Delicia, one of 13 women among about 120 soldiers, said she had volunteered to go abroad but she could not believe the official orders when they came.
She had thought her mother was joking when she got the message last week that she was about to be sent into active duty. The 22-year-old said she had been planning to start a women's thrift store and was looking for a store location.
Yesterday, Delicia lingered groggy-eyed with her husband, Jose, outside the armory parking lot gate. She said she has found it impossible to sleep for the last three days.
She said she was afraid of missing something -- the sight of her husband, her relatives, the sounds of a familiar place.
"I don't want to close my eyes -- not until I leave here."