ROCK SPRINGS"Honey, I'm just a cook," John Dalton said in his most soothing voice, gently patting his wife's pregnant belly as he spoke. "When the shooting starts, I'll be way back behind."
"Don't make no difference," Autumn Dalton replied through her sobs. "Cook or whatever, they're still sending you off to -- off to war!"
In a brief, unhappy deployment ceremony at the Sweetwater County Fairgrounds, Sgt. John Dalton of Evanston, Wyo., and about 170 other members of the Army National Guard were sent off to a possible war today. Official details of their mission have been labeled "classified," but the soldiers lining up to board the C-130 transport plane said they had been told that they'll be in Kuwait within a month, and that they should not expect to return to the parched brown hills of southwest Wyoming for more than a year.
As the United States gears up for war, the tearful scene on a chilly, rainy morning here is being played out at meeting halls and armories across the nation this winter. Teachers are leaving their classrooms, mechanics are putting down their tools and police officers are exchanging blue uniforms for camouflage as tens of thousands of men and women in reserve and Guard units are yanked from civilian life and dispatched toward the Middle East to be ready to fight in Iraq. More than 78,900 have been called to active duty.
Southern Wyoming's oil belt is as conservative and pro-military as any place in the country, but even here the prospect of war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein seemed to generate little excitement or patriotic pride. Among the soldiers -- each bearing a black M-16 rifle and a brown plastic sack marked "MEAL, ready to eat, individual" -- the mood was rather a grudging acceptance of military duty.
"We signed up for the Guard, and when they call you, you gotta go," said Bernard Rivera, of Rock Springs, proudly pointing out the sergeant's chevron on his green fatigues. "I'm kind of nervous. In fact, I'm scared, just like everybody else. My wife is more scared than I am. But I'm a soldier."
The huge red, white and blue sheet cakes donated by the local Wal-Mart, the free flags distributed by veterans' groups, and the energetic sounds of the Rock Springs High School band did little to lift the mood among the 700 family members, politicians and townspeople who showed up to mark the foreign deployment of Wyoming National Guard troops.
Even the assembled military brass conceded that Rock Springs was glum about the troop movement. "I don't see a single smiling face out there," said Maj. Gen. Ed Boenisch, adjutant general of the Wyoming National Guard. "There are fears and concerns out there. It's scary stuff."
"To be honest, O Lord, these soldiers would prefer that this task not be set before them," said the unit's chaplain, Skip Perry, in his benediction. "But it has been, and we pray for their safe return."
Many of the departing Guard members and their families said today's deployment was directly related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "We've been at war for more than a year now," said Sgt. Shon Wilson of Laramie, who had just entered his last semester at the University of Wyoming when the order to deploy came 10 days ago. "It's a soldier's job to protect the people of this country, and we train for it."
But support for the war is not universal here. "I think [President] Bush is trigger-happy," said Lee Jones, a Rock Springs businessman who showed up to say goodbye to his best friend. "Would it hurt to wait a while? Then maybe these guys wouldn't have to go at all."
Others found it dubious to send local Guard units overseas for a war that could trigger more terrorism at home. "If we go to war, there might be stuff right here," said Mary McCann of Big Piney, who wept profusely as her son Tye, 19, waved a sad farewell from the pale blue Army bus. "Then you're going to say, 'why don't we have any National Guard to protect us?' "
The local Guard complement, the 1041st Engineer Company, is an "Assault Float Bridge" unit, trained to erect a heavy vehicle bridge across a raging river in a matter of minutes. Unit members normally train in the spectacular Flaming Gorge canyon on the Green River just west of this small market town. With the local rivers mostly frozen, the 1041st is scheduled to practice bridge-building in Louisiana and Arkansas before its planned departure for the Persian Gulf region next month.
The soldiers call themselves "Bridge Trolls," and they say their particular skill could be in high demand in a war with Iraq. "It's a desert over there," Rivera said, "but they have two big rivers, the Tiger and the Fraity, or something." In the Gulf War, the 1041st has been told, Saddam blew up bridges on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, requiring rapid construction of new spans to keep allied troops moving forward.
While the main force of the 1041st is up ahead building bridges, Sgt. John Dalton will be behind the lines cooking meals -- as he continually reminded his weeping wife this morning. "It's funny, 'cause I'm a welding inspector in my job here," the 34-year-old Dalton said. "But the Army made me a cook. Go figure."
Autumn Dalton was hardly receptive to reassurance. She clung to her husband, wiped her tears, and looked utterly miserable throughout the songs and speeches of the deployment ceremony.
At the front of the room, the adjutant general was doing his best to raise spirits. "We look forward to the day when we can welcome the Bridge Trolls back to Wyoming," Boenisch intoned.
"Oh, yeah?" Autumn Dalton said through sobs. "And can anybody tell us when that will happen?"