They all heard some version of the same thing.
“Whaddaya mean, deployed?” Or “I thought everyone came home.”
Or “Isn’t it over?”
Even across the river at the Pentagon, the very morning deployment to Afghanistan was becoming a reality for nearly 100 local families, President Obama was announcing plans for a reduced American military.
Heading off to war seems so 2002, not 2012.
And yet, here we are.
“It’s like all of America forgot that we’re still going out there. My husband’s going to Afghanistan. I have to tell people it’s a whole different war,” said Chaniqua Moore, 23, a District mother of two who was one of 80 families saying goodbye to their soldiers Thursday morning at the D.C. Armory.
Amira Ayala, 20, will spend the next year alone in her new Front Royal home with her 2-month-old daughter while her husband is deployed. “I keep thinking that maybe they’ll just say it’s canceled, and he’ll come back,” she said.
Ayala dated a Marine once and dealt with his deployment. But she married a National Guard soldier and hoped it would be different.
But it isn’t, because America has relied on its National Guard volunteers in unprecedented numbers for its two wars. Hundreds of thousands of guardsmen have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade.
So Ayala sat among the other families on creaky risers at the armory in Southeast Washington, where she forced a cheer for the soldiers heading to war in an old and emotional ritual: the departure ceremony.
It’s like a bittersweet pep rally. You’ve gotta be strong, hold your head high. Cheer them on. But all the while, you wonder: Will they all make it back?
The 80 members of the Army National Guard units heading to Afghanistan lined up in front of the audience, standing at attention, trying not to react to the waves or smiles or a tiny voice crying “Daddy! Daddy! Daddeeeeeeeeeeeee.”
They bowed their heads as a chaplain prayed for their safe return. Among those heading to where?:
An unemployed father of five whose wife is pregnant.
A college student.
A business consultant whose daughter is 5 months old.
Three sets of cousins.
They are 23, 38, 45 and then some. Some are soldiers who left the Marines or the Army and went straight to the Guard because that’s who they are, what they know. But many are civilians whose family tolerated their weekend drills and even puffed up a little when they hit the streets of their community to help in Snowmageddon or lined the parade route during the Obama inauguration.
“She was out there helping in the snow,” Vernita Perry said of her daughter, Spec. Nivek Epps, who was standing at attention, to the shock and awe of her large group of friends who came to say goodbye to her. One was dressed like Snooki; another wore a flashy, diamante bangle. They gave her a bouquet of yellow daisies, hugs and arm punches when she walked over to them. Clearly, they haven’t seen her in uniform often.
“I can’t believe my best friend is doing this,” said the semi-Snooki.
“I don’t have the slightest idea why she ever did this,” said her mother. “But helping with the snow, that was okay. This? Going to Afghanistan? I can’t believe it’s happening. I don’t want her to go.”
Gold and green star balloons sagged lazily over hors d’oeuvres tables. The soldiers ate big plates. The mothers barely nibbled.
The Army band played standards that echoed in the cavernous space, and dads held their kids tight, a final drool stain for their uniforms, a baby’s Godspeed blessing.
“I’m trying not to think about it,” said Lt. Matthew Wilson, who will be away from his 4-month-old daughter, Kennedy, an avid drooler.
His wife, Carolyn Wilson, 23, is new to deployments, to the military and to mothering. But she’s upbeat, even volunteering to coordinate the family support system.
“We’re ready for it,” she said, firmly.
She’ll spend the time talking to other family members, walking their baby in their Northwest Washington neighborhood by the National Cathedral. “I stopped working so I could be with her,” she explained.
Shelby Manning, 36, also put her plans to go back to school on hold during the deployment. With five kids and another on the way, what else could she do?
“The last deployment was really hard. That was a tough one,” she said, holding her 2-year-old back from his constant pursuit of “Daddeeeeeeeee.” This will be their third deployment.
She moved in with her parents in Burke, and she’ll concentrate on the kids while her husband is gone.
And she wants everyone to know that this tough, endless cycle — deployment, unemployment, deployment — is still going on.
“We were just talking about that the other day. No one wants to believe he’s being deployed again,” she said. “After everyone came back from Iraq, Americans forget there’s another war still going on.”
Yes, even in 2012.