FORT RILEY, Kan.—In an old gymnasium Friday morning, families and loved ones got 30 minutes to say goodbye to 200 soldiers—mainly military police—going to the war zone for the long haul. It was a heart-wrenching half-hour for people who won't see or hold each other for months, since these MPs will be deployed to keep the peace in postwar Iraq.
Spc. Laura Stayer, 21, of Moorpark, Calif., spent the time huddled with her parents and sister. Her father, Dennis Stayer, said traveling to Kansas to see his daughter was the "most important thing we've ever done." His wife nodded, holding back tears so her daughter, who wouldn't speak, wouldn't see. Dennis Stayer wore an exercise jacket with "Army" in big letters.
"I wear it for her," he said.
Laura Stayer decided to join the Army because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Now, he said, "She's going on a very important mission."
His daughter and about 200 other women and men with Fort Riley's 977th Military Police Company are deploying to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. The MPs will provide the eyes and ears for commanders in rear areas, said 1st Sgt. Dawn Rippelmeyer. They will help secure supply routes, operate checkpoints and guard prisoners.
Sgt. Zachary Barker, 24, of Evansville, Ind., leaned against a wall with his arm around his girlfriend, Monica Kreissler. She leaned into him and patted his chest tenderly. It will be their first time away from each other.
"It will be all right, though," he said. "She knows we're going to go out there and do our job and come back."
Nearby, a boy, maybe 12, wiped tears from both eyes with the palms of his hands.
In a corner, a young soldier with a shaved head and tears in his eyes held an infant girl in front of his face.
Then officers barked the command: "All right, let's go!"
Soldiers pulled away from their loved ones and got in formation. The soldiers filed out of the gym, then marched back in and stood at attention. People in the bleachers applauded continuously for five minutes.
A man stepped up and led a prayer to "keep angels around us."
In a brief address, Lt. Col. Pamela Martis, commander of the 924th Military Police Battalion, told the soldiers: "We will take care of your loved ones and families while you are gone."
As the soldiers marched out of the gym on their way to buses, one young MP turned his head ever so slightly as he passed a woman holding a small boy in her lap. Tears rimmed her eyes. As their eyes met, he deftly laid two fingers over his heart.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.