Not even the harsh desert sun could dry the tears of sadness and pride on Saturday as hundreds of families bid adieu to the largest contingent of overseas-bound California National Guard soldiers since the Korean War.
"I'm extremely proud of my son because he believes in what he is doing," said Nancy Navarro, mother of Spc. Nicholas Navarro, 24, of Victorville, "but for his mother's heart, it's tough. I'm praying for him."
Also saying goodbye to the young soldier, who worked in a skateboard-shoe shop before being called up, were two sisters; his wife, Rhiannon, 25; and 10-month-old daughter, Makenna.
More than 2,500 troops from the National Guard 81st Separate Armor Brigade, including 900 from California, depart, beginning today, for a one-year assignment in Iraq, where they are to replace regular Army forces. By the end of May, Pentagon officials say, nearly half of the 110,000 U.S. troops in Iraq will be National Guard or reserve personnel.
It is the first time since Korea that the Guard and reserves have played such a major overseas role. California, where polls show citizens to be among the least supportive of the Iraq war effort, is sending more Guard and reserve troops than any other state.
The largest California Guard unit is the 1st Battalion, 185th Armor Regiment headquartered in San Bernardino, which is sending 612 soldiers to Iraq. Most of the other California soldiers assembled on the tarmac of the Ft. Irwin helicopter base were from the 160th Mechanized Infantry Battalion from Riverside and the 579th Engineers from Manhattan Beach.
As the military band played martial tunes, four wives of men in the 160th huddled in the grandstands in an impromptu support group. While they waited for the ceremony to start, each of the four wrote a love letter for her husband to read on the way to Iraq.
In her letter to Staff Sgt. Kevin Phillips, Colleen Phillips wrote: "You are everything to me and I wanted to tell you how very proud I am. I could not be luckier to have a man who is so brave and so sensitive." She signed the letter with the couple's traditional salutation: "noses, hearts and never-ending moonbeams." In civilian life, Sgt. Phillips, 42, is a Long Beach park policeman. Colleen Phillips is a registered dental assistant. They have four children, ages 17, 15, 9 and 6. They live in Lakewood.
The California "citizen soldiers" in the National Guard leave behind civilian jobs ranging from schoolteacher to prison guard. They arrived this weekend by bus from Southern California armories, in minivans jammed with kids and, in the case of one millionaire enlisted man, a private airplane.
Greg Shirk, 44, of Visalia, made a small fortune in 2001 when his family sold its chain of 12 grocery stores to a Texas company. For a time, the tall, fair-skinned Shirk, a mere specialist in the National Guard, dabbled in business and politics.
A computer venture failed. Running as a Republican, Shirk lost a race for Tulare County supervisor. Two years ago, Shirk's marriage to an attorney ended in divorce. The final decree left his two-story, Southern-style mansion, modeled on the plantation house at Tara in "Gone With the Wind," to his ex-wife and two sons, 6 and 4.
"This deployment came at a really good time for me," Shirk said, interviewed in Visalia while on a three-day leave before returning to Ft. Irwin. "I was between jobs and just working at one of our ranches. Besides, I never thought this should be a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Shirk, tooling around town in his mother's Jaguar sedan, spent much of his leave visiting his two sons.
Sam, the 4-year-old, has his own camouflage fatigues and an Army-issue Kevlar helmet. The boys' mother, Jennifer Shirk, said that since Greg Shirk's assignment to Iraq, Sam has insisted on watching Fox News broadcasts instead of cartoons.
Sam has memorized the lyrics to Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." Singing it for a reporter in the sweeping grounds of the country estate outside Visalia, his voice rose when he got to the lines: "And I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free. And I won't forget the men who died, who gave that right to me." The youngster's fervent patriotism almost matches that of his father.
"Greg is probably the most patriotic person I know," said Greg's brother Eric Shirk, 40, who piloted Greg to the Barstow-Doggett airport in the private Cessna 182. "When I always wanted to go to Hawaii and sit on the beach, Greg wanted to visit a battlefield someplace."
At the airport, Greg Shirk embraced his stepfather, Visalia grocery magnate Leonard Whitney, a World War II veteran of 33 B-17 missions over Germany and a major influence in Greg's life.
Afterward, in a car heading to Ft. Irwin, the infectiously gung-ho Spc. Shirk had a brief tearful breakdown in which he wondered aloud about his mission to Iraq. "I don't know what I was thinking," Shirk told a photographer who accompanied him on the drive. "I should have had my head examined. This stuff is for 18-year-olds."
Most of the Guardsmen heading to Iraq do not have Shirk's privileged background.
Sgt. Carlos Lopez, 38, is a history teacher at North Park Middle School in Pico Rivera. Spc. Jaime Castillo, 25, of Van Nuys, is a college student who works as a phlebotomist, drawing blood from patients at Kaiser Hospital West Hills.
The strapping, 6-foot-3 Castillo is a medic who, during four years of service in the regular Army before joining the National Guard, served overseas in Bosnia and Nicaragua. Castillo asked his parents, Jose and Rosa Castillo, also of Van Nuys, not to attend the Saturday send-off at Ft. Irwin. "These things get too sad," he said.
Instead, he was seen off by his girlfriend and fellow National Guard trooper, Sgt. Sandra Del Gadillo, 26, of Torrance. The two met in Bosnia, where they were both on assignment in the Army. Sgt. Del Gadillo is not being deployed to Iraq.
According to Charmion Sellers, wife of Sgt. 1st Class David Sellers of the San Bernardino-based 185th Armor Regiment, not all of the spouses and girlfriends are prepared emotionally for the long separation ahead.
The mother of two, who is volunteer coordinator for the regiment's spouses, said monthly counseling sessions had been set up in Corona, Orange and Long Beach for the spouses. "Some are having a really hard time," she said, "especially because it is the first time that their soldiers are going for such a long time."
The separation got even more emotional last week when the National Guard command threatened to cancel the soldiers' final three-day leave after two weapons, belonging to battalion commander Lt. Col. Barry Sayers and Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony Hines, were stolen at the Ft. Irwin training site.
The 185th's tent quarters on the edge of Ft. Irwin were ordered locked down and the soldiers' gear was subjected to several searches, but the two weapons, 9-millimeter pistols normally carried by officers and ranking non-commissioned officers, were never found.
When the leave was canceled, several National Guard soldiers contacted reporters and local political representatives to complain. Several had planned to get married during the three-day break.
"Some people were going to go, no matter what," said Spc. Victor DiCarlo, 22, of Irvine. DiCarlo interrupted his studies at Saddleback College and a job at Macy's to go to Iraq.
Finally, the commanders relented and restored the leave, but not without adding to the strain already on the departing troops. "The gun thing was a real roller-coaster ride for several days," Castillo said.
Even Charmion Sellers, a veteran of several overseas deployments during her husband's 13-year career in the Marines, was feeling the pressure.
"I just want them to go now," she said. "These four months in limbo since the deployment was announced have caused havoc. I just want my husband to go and get it over with. He's retiring after this one."