Sitting in a hangar at the former Norton air base in San Bernardino, National Guardsman Eric Burden says he never thought this day would come. He's dressed in fatigues and surrounded by fellow weekend warriors. They are headed to Iraq. Between bites of tacos and carrot cake, the 300 men and their relatives are learning about spousal benefits and having their wills notarized.
These citizen soldiers of the Army's 1st Battalion, 185th Armor Regiment are among tens of thousands of National Guard and Reserve troops across the nation that were alerted by the Pentagon earlier this year that they may be sent to the Middle East as part of a troop rotation plan. The last time a California National Guard ground battalion was sent into combat was the Korean War.
"Over 50 years of history has gone by, and that hasn't happened," said Maj. John J. McBrearty of Fontana. "A lot of guys are pretty excited about it, enthused to support the cause of freedom."
Burden, 32, a sporting-goods salesman, and his wife, Jana, have tried to explain to Kayla, 8, and Amber, 16, why their father is leaving. They've spent quality time together. The girls were pulled out of school for a couple of days, and the family took their annual Christmas Eve trip to Disneyland early.
"The kids are devastated. It's very difficult," said Jana Burden, 39. "I don't sleep. We've done a lot of crying. We don't watch the news anymore."
In days, the battalion will leave for training in Washington state. Then it will ship out to Iraq.
Despite the Christmas tree, donated toys for children and buffet lunch, Sunday at Norton was a somber day marked with the knowledge that the guardsmen are leaving for an 18-month mission that will start with training and end with up to a year in Iraq.
Adrian Robles, 20, and his wife, Nani, 18, stood in line for the notary. They married a month ago when they learned that Robles' unit was being mobilized. In a hasty courthouse ceremony, clad in sweaters and jeans, the couple exchanged vows. They plan to do it properly once Robles returns.
"I don't want him to leave," said Nani. "I'm scared and I'm sad."
Her husband, who joined the guard in 11th grade, didn't expect to be sent overseas.
"Let's go and get it done with," he said.
The 185th mobilized Saturday, hauling backpacks and duffel bags into the armory in San Bernardino. For the next several days, they will practice donning nuclear, chemical and biological protective gear and will practice other soldiering skills, such as land navigation with a map and compass.
On an undisclosed day, they will head to Ft. Lewis in Washington, where they will train in hand-to-hand combat. They may get sent to Ft. Irwin, Calif., to train in a desert setting.
Then they will ship out to an undisclosed location in Iraq.
"We're just like any other soldiers out there," McBrearty said.
Second Lt. John Watkins, 35, served for eight months in the first Gulf war. After he was discharged from the Army, he joined the National Guard and became a physician's assistant.
He's not surprised to be heading back to the Middle East.
"Things were left undone. The job wasn't finished. Nothing was stable," he said. "If they needed a large number of troops as an occupation force, it was only a matter of time before we would be called up to do our share."
But the first time was different: He didn't have two daughters, or a son due in February. "This is going to be one heck of a hardship," he said.
Watkins' wife, Angie, is away on duty with the Navy in Chicago. She will miss his departure, so they said their goodbyes last weekend.
For months, they have been preparing Kalani, 8, and Kellie, 6, for the possibility of their father being shipped out.
"Even though they're 6 and 8, they're up on current events," he said. "We talk about those things: 'You remember the war in the desert? Daddy's going to have to go help take care of the soldiers so they can come home to their families.' Because they know Daddy's like a doctor."
In the weeks leading up to his departure, he has also made other preparations: making sure his will, life insurance and power of attorney are up to date so his family is taken care of in case the worst happens. But he can't bear to dwell on the thought of his wife giving birth with him so far away.
"I'm taking it one day at a time," he said. "That's too much to deal with."
The thought that makes Jim Bringham, 39, tear up is that his 17-month-old daughter, Grace, will speak her first words while he is away.
In Iraq, the chaplain's assistant will offer spiritual guidance to soldiers in the field. At home, he and his wife, Elizabeth, have been relying on their faith.
Bringham worked as a civilian director of youth ministry at Ft. Irwin. Since he received his orders, the family has been busy preparing. They moved to Mission Viejo so Elizabeth and Grace can be closer to relatives while Bringham is away. The couple celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary with a weekend trip to Palm Springs.
Elizabeth made him a scrapbook full of pictures of the three of them, surrounded by hearts and quotes.
He plans to make a videotape with messages to his daughter and wife so they can see his face and hear his voice while he is away.
"It was so surreal," Elizabeth said. "When he actually got the mobilization order, then it hit me. I felt waves of tears, but I also know there's a higher purpose for his going. If I have to let him go, I will. But I want him to come back."