The dozen Ohio Army National Guardsmen marched into the Reynoldsburg United Methodist Church chapel yesterday with stoic faces befitting soldiers proud to serve their country. But none of them could suppress megawatt smiles at their family members that said "I love you" and "Everything will be OK" as they prepared to depart on a deployment that will take them to Afghanistan.
Even Adjutant General Deborah Ashenhurst noticed how the men lit up before becoming serious again.
"It's OK to smile," she told the men, adding that if there was ever a day to sport a Cheshire grin for their loved ones, it was yesterday.
Ashenhurst said she expected an even greater show of emotion a year from now when the men return from teaming up with Hungarian forces to train Afghan police officers. The soldiers make up Military Advisory Team 2 in the Ohio Army National Guard's 174th Air Defense Artillery Brigade.
Two-year-old Olivia Harkless of Akron had no idea what the grownups were talking about but she knew her daddy was sitting in front of her and needed a poke --well, several pokes, actually.
Staff Sgt. Rudy Harkless turned around and made a funny face as she rocked back and forth in his wife's lap. Olivia proudly wore a white T-shirt with "My hero wears combat boots" in pink lettering on the front and "I call him daddy" on the back.
Harkless' wife, Stacie, 30, is pregnant and said it would be difficult to see her husband leave just a few weeks before her due date. But she suspected it would be easier than during his first deployment in 2008, a few weeks after they got married and moved into a new house.
"I knew nothing about Army life back then," she said. "It's different now. I have a lot of family to help, and I'll have two little girls to take care of."
Vicki Harp, 54, of Sandusky, said sending her 29-year-old son, Jeremy, into battle never gets any easier.
"I'm always nervous, anxious and scared to death," she said, wiping tears from her eyes.
But she said her son, a sergeant, is a mother's dream and a great dad who knows how to put them all at ease. The night before, for example, he pulled all the chairs out from the kitchen table and built a fort for his two children after his 5-year-old daughter started to cry about his leaving.
"The kids slept under that fort all night long," Harp said.
Knowing their loved ones will get the support they need makes it easier to leave, said Sgt. Maj. Bill Dillon, 43, of Portsmouth, who has been deployed three other times.
"I want my family and all of the families to have the same freedoms that I grew up with," he said. "It's very important to me to know that they can sleep soundly in their beds."
Tina Dillon, 43, said her husband's father and grandfather both served in the military and she can't imagine him doing anything else. "He's just a soldier's soldier."
To share a little comfort of home, she said she plans to routinely send her husband Doritos, instant macaroni and cheese, and cans of tuna --things he craves while on tour.
Lt. Col. David Ditz said he is proud of his team --11 of whom have been deployed before and six of whom have pursued this mission in Afghanistan before. He joked that his men are the "fabulous 12" and said "This team will not and cannot fail."
"What more can I say? They're my brothers, and I trust them with my life," Ditz said.
The men leave today for Fort Polk in Louisiana, where they will train for about two months before going to Europe. They'll train there for another two months before going to Afghanistan, he said.