The last time Staff Sgt. Pierre Ligonde went off to war, it was easier.
Twelve years ago, when he was 22 and single, Ligonde deployed with his D.C. Army National Guard company to the Middle East for the Persian Gulf War. Now his unit is again shipping out to the region for another potential conflict with Iraq.
This time, Ligonde, 34, has to say goodbye to his fiancee and their 20-month-old daughter. "I'm leaving more behind now," he said.
More than 100 soldiers from Ligonde's unit, the 547th Transportation Company, said goodbye to their families yesterday during an emotional deployment ceremony at Anacostia Naval Station. They are part of a wave of Guard and reserve troops from the Washington region who have mobilized in recent days as the Pentagon gears up for war.
About 40 soldiers from a D.C. Army National Guard medevac helicopter unit deployed Thursday after a farewell ceremony at Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir.
Following another farewell ceremony yesterday, 33 Army reservists from a logistical support unit also departed from Fort Belvoir. The soldiers, mostly contracting officers from Northern Virginia assigned to the Army Logistics Civil Augmentation Program Support Unit, are being sent to 11 locations in the countries that fall within the U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility.
This month, 35 Marine reservists from the 4th Civil Affairs Group based at Anacostia Naval Station shipped out to the Mediterranean with a Marine expeditionary brigade, and 19 Marine Reservists from the 4th Supply Battalion at Anacostia are to deploy Monday for an undisclosed destination, part of the largest call-up for the Marine Corps Reserve since the Gulf War.
Tomorrow, 140 Army Reservists from the 464th Transportation Company (Medium Boat) are to deploy from Fort Belvoir.
Across the country, the number of National Guard and reservists called to active duty has been increasing in recent weeks, to a total of 78,906 as of Wednesday. Tens of thousands more will be called up if the United States attacks Iraq.
At the 547th Transportation Company headquarters at Anacostia, the supply room overseen by Ligonde was a rush of activity Tuesday night as D.C. National Guard troops packed their gear and sealed cartons. A steady stream of soldiers heaved bags onto their backs and loaded them into the rear of a five-ton truck, one of 71 vehicles the unit is taking to the region.
Ligonde's fiancee, Latoya Wright, carrying daughter Nakhyla, bundled in a black coat against the cold, stopped by to say hello. "Daddy hasn't been around much in the last two months," Wright said.
The Suitland couple had talked about getting married before the company deployed, but Ligonde decided to wait until his return. "There's not enough time to do it right, so I'm not going to rush it," he said.
Other things will have to wait, too. Wright's plan to go back to graduate school for a master's degree in business administration is on hold, as are their plans to buy a house. "Everything has to wait until he gets back," she said.
About 90 percent of the soldiers in the 547th are civilians who in addition to leaving their families are leaving behind jobs with Metro or as commercial truck drivers and mechanics. About 40 percent of the deployed soldiers served in the Gulf War.
The company spent more than seven months in the Middle East in 1990 and 1991, its drivers logging more than 750,000 accident-free miles. "We're like the trucking service for the Army," said 1st Lt. Malik Freeman, 28, company commander. "We get food, soldiers and logistics to the front line."
Lt. Tanya Lawrence-Riggins's 8-year-old son will leave their home in Fort Washington to live with her ex-husband. The boy is not taking his mother's departure well, she said, and is especially nervous about the chemical and biological threats he has heard about on the news. "He understands a little too much," she said.
"Nobody really wants to go, but these soldiers are like family, and if my family has to go, then I want to go," said Sgt. 1st Class Shannon Goodwin, 41, of Upper Marlboro, who is leaving behind her husband and 19-year-old daughter.
The soldiers in the company are driving their trucks to Fort Eustis in Hampton Roads, Va., for final preparations and training before shipping out overseas. They will train to protect themselves against such threats as snipers, roadblocks, ambushes and land mines.
"We're fighting truck drivers," Freeman said. "Truck drivers have to know how to defend themselves."
Freeman, who has a wife and 15-month-old daughter, has been in the military for eight years but has never deployed before for a mission overseas. For guidance, he has turned to old hands in the company who went through the last war. The best advice he heard was simple: "Just take care of the soldiers. And bring them home."