FORT LEONARD WOOD, MO. -- With the sound of babies playing and fussing in the background, more than 150 soldiers who can swing a sledge hammer snapped to attention Monday for a deployment ceremony in their honor. The group was about to go on a nine-month tour in Afghanistan.
"We are sending you to tear down facilities that we started building 11 years ago," Army Lt. Col. Gary Calese told them of their effort in the ongoing war. "Keep your head down. Keep aware of your surroundings. Keep in touch."
Made up of carpenters, electricians and masons with ages ranging from 18 to 52, the 77th Engineer Company is the last of a dozen deployments in 2012 from the 63,000-acre base in south-central Missouri.
Major Gen. Mark Yenter, commander of the base, told the company the war is in a "critical stage." Afghans are expected to take over combat operations by the end of 2014. Scores of temporary outposts, bases and landing zones need to come down.
He thanked the families. He encouraged soldiers going overseas for the first time to watch others who have gone before. He told the soldiers to celebrate small victories.
"You want to be recharged when those tough days hit," he said.
With talk of the war slowing down, soldiers like 2nd Lt. John Steingruby, 22, of St. Charles, looked forward to doing what he was trained for.
"I didn't think I'd get the opportunity to go because the war is winding down," Steingruby said. "It's nice to be able to use what you went to school for and trained for."
But he was going to catch up with the company, a subordinate of the 4th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, after his baby is born in a few weeks.
There were several children in the crowd, including five belonging to Catrina Gulasa, 25. She said her family celebrated Christmas early this year, which surprised the kids. It's her husband's first deployment. With 7-month-old Ayla in her harms, she said the transition was "going as good as it can."
Spc. Cynthia Espinoza, 28, of the Bronx, was on her way to her fourth deployment. This time, though, she has a 2-year-old daughter to think of.
"I am just worried about coming back," she said.
In September 2011, three soldiers from Fort Leonard Word were killed in Afghanistan while doing route clearance. Recently, a service dog from the base was struck by shrapnel in Afghanistan.
There will be a memorial for the dog, Tygo, today at the base.