EDINBURGH, Ind. - There were tears and hugs and so much sobbing among Spc. Marcus Welch's family that he said it was "like I was dead."
But this was no funeral - just the going-away ceremony for the National Guard's 512th Engineer Battalion, which will be among the first units to leave in the next wave of troops heading for Iraq.
From January to May, the roughly 123,000 U.S. troops in Iraq will be replaced with about 110,000 new fighters, many from Guard units such as the 512th.
"This is unexpected. I had my life planned, but I'm ready to do what I've got to do," said Welch, 24, a clothing designer, as he underwent training at Camp Atterbury, about 30 miles south of Indianapolis.
The 512th, a headquarters unit of the Ohio Army National Guard that oversees construction projects, has been through such preparation before. Their bags were packed in February to go to Turkey for the planned invasion of northern Iraq.
Then Turkey decided not to allow American troops on its soil, so the unit unpacked. Then the call came again.
The 512th, based in Cincinnati, came together for a farewell ceremony. Soon after, they left for Camp Atterbury for vaccines, weapons training and cultural lessons.
Welch wishes they could have departed on a different note.
"I don't want my last memory to be of everybody crying," he said.
Sgt. B.J. Hubbard, 33, was pregnant in February with her fifth child and not eligible to deploy. This time she's packed too. Her infant daughter, Avi, is just 4 months old.
In black marker on a pair of blue pajamas, she's printed the name of her husband and five children. Across the top she wrote "J.I.L.O.A" - Jesus is Lord of all.
"At night, I can still have my family near me," she said.
The pants are signed in black marker by the kids, ages 4 months to 16. One message says, "Mommy, can I have a dog?" Another says, "I love my Mommy."
Hubbard's husband is in the Naval Reserves. Some members of his unit were activated, but because of Hubbard's deployment, her husband did not have to go overseas - at least for now.
Her 16-year-old daughter is envious and wants to go to Iraq. She says she'll join the military when she turns 17. The 5-year-old is confused, Hubbard said.
"I told her there was a bad man named Saddam Hussein, and I needed to go over and make sure he don't hurt any more kids," Hubbard said.
When the 5-year-old heard Saddam was captured, she wanted to know if Hubbard was still leaving.
Hubbard told her, "We still have to make sure the mommies and babies are OK."
For Spc. Charissa Hayden, 2003 was a year of goodbyes. Her family threw her a going-away party. Then she said goodbye in February to her boyfriend, Spc. Mark Richard, a 101st Airborne Division soldier who left to fight in Iraq.
But her deployment was canceled when Turkey refused to let in U.S. troops. She continued attending classes at the University of Cincinnati, and worried about Richard.
Now, she'll be in Iraq - and he'll be home.
"It wasn't good timing at all," said Hayden, 20. "This is definitely not something I would've expected."
Richard was able to talk his commander into letting him come home for two weeks. During their four days together, the couple shied away from talking about what he had seen. The 101st has lost 57 soldiers in Iraq - more than any other division.
Hayden said this wasn't what she'd bargained for when she joined the Guard to pay for school. "I signed up before Sept. 11. Everything was so peaceful. I thought I'd be cleaning up after floods or something."
Lt. Col. Mike Ernst's daughter, Crystal Zizzo, was so distraught her dad was going to miss her spring wedding in Arizona, she wrote a letter to President Bush asking him to delay Ernst's deployment. She received a form letter back.
Later, her father's deployment plans changed, and Ernst, commander of the 512th, was able to attend.
Zizzo, 30, picked a song she felt would be appropriate for the father-daughter dance: "The Star Spangled Banner." Zizzo didn't care if the patriotic song was a bit fast for a slow dance. She happily danced with her dad in his dress uniform.
"The whole place was in tears," Ernst said. "It was a pretty touching moment."
Some soldiers' families called Camp Atterbury after Saddam Hussein was captured, asking if the unit still had to leave.
"I don't think it changes anything for us," Ernst said. "Our mission is construction management. We need to go rebuild that country even more so now."
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