Family and friends of more than 600 Florida National Guard troops crammed a hangar Sunday to send off a South Florida infantry unit to train then swap out with another Florida battalion handling a War-on-Terror security mission in the Horn of Africa.
Maj. Gen. Michael Calhoun, head of the Florida National Guard, observed that the Miami-based 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, known as Hurricane Battalion, was departing ahead of hurricane season to replace the Orlando-based 2nd Battalion for the “critical back-to-back rotation on the African continent.”
“I know there’s always anxiety with deployments,” the general told the soldiers’ families, promising “every resource at your disposal when needed.”
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First stop is Fort Bliss, Texas, for training for the nine-month stint at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti providing security for themselves and others as part of the 2,000-staff Combined Joint Task Force set up after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The departing troops range in age from 18 to 45, according to Lt. Col. Julio Acosta, the battalion commander. About 25 to 30 percent have previously been deployed, he said, to either or both Iraq and Afghanistan since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
This was a first assignment, however, for Spc. Wendy Pantoja, 24, of Miami, who will handle logistics at battalion headquarters. Pantoja said she learned of the Sept. 11 attacks during her fifth-grade language arts class and then chose to join four years ago “basically to serve my country.” She declared herself not at all nervous about the coming assignment. “They train us very well,” she said. “We kind of know what to expect.”
Around her, troops mustered at a private hangar at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport were spending some last precious moments with family and friends in groups — exchanging hugs, the occasional tears, some holding picnics and posing for more than a few family photos.
In the midst of it all, Staff Sgt. John Moses, 38, of Hallandale Beach shared a quiet moment with his 5-year-old son Curtis, who sat on his dad’s lap playing with action figures. It was Moses’ second War-on-Terror deployment but the first since the birth of his son.
“I could not be more proud of every soldier standing here today,” Calhoun said in the brief but festive send-off. “You not only sacrifice for our nation overseas, but also respond to disasters and provide life-saving relief to citizens in our state.”
In Djibouti they will team up with nearly 100 members of a North Florida unit, Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 153rd Cavalry Regiment, which, despite its name, doesn’t ride horses. They’re “mechanized cavalry,” meaning they typically ride up-armored Humvees to carry out scouting missions.
For the trip to training in El Paso, Texas, the South Florida troops donned their green Army combat uniforms rather than the new multi-camouflage pattern “multicams” they will wear in the Africom theater of operations.
Staff Sgt. Anthony Calvi, 27, of Miami, a project engineer for a construction company in civilian life, served in Kuwait and Iraq in 2010 as part of the huge Florida Guard deployment that handled convoy security in and out of Kuwait, a dangerous mission.
This time it’s a security assignment too, he said, although they don’t expect the same level of daily hostility.
“But there’s a threat, and we have to be prepared at all times,” he said, adding, “we’ll be ready for anything they ask us to do. We’ve been trained very well.”