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How a soldier deals with saying goodbye

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on January 9, 2010.

The reality that her husband was going off to war really hit April Bryan on Sunday night, just three days before Army Spc. Benny Bryan and the rest of his unit began their deployment.

She had just returned to Jacksonville after dropping Bryan off at the National Guard armory in Ocala, where his unit is based.

"I walked in the door, and the baby looked around. You could tell she was wondering where Daddy was, " she said Monday. "Then I saw his pajamas on the bed."

Wednesday morning, she cried again.

This time she was joined in her tears by scores of family members and friends of the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, who were gathered in Orlando to begin their deployment.

In a cavernous hangar, Bryan pulled his mother into a tight embrace, then turned and wiped the tears from his wife's face. The couple held each other for a long moment, then the 33-year-old soldier turned toward the door.

The days before that public ceremony featured quiet, personal moments. Visiting relatives Saturday night. Buying phone cards and toiletries Sunday afternoon. Making sure addresses were up to date Monday evening.

As they prepared, the family allowed a reporter to follow along, providing a glimpse at the human side of massive military operations.

THOUSANDS SET TO GO
Such moments played out across the state the past few weeks as the Florida National Guard readied for its largest deployment since World War II. Almost 2,500 Guard members spent the early days of the new year checking their uniforms, setting up e-mail accounts, attending farewell dinners, saying goodbye.

Bryan had a lot of people to say goodbye to.

When the Bryans, both previously married, tied the knot last month, they blended six kids into a new family - "Yeah, we're the Brady Bunch, " Benny Bryan joked.

The older boys, 9 and 10 years old, pepper him with questions about the deployment. "The main one is, 'Am I going to get shot, ' " he said. "Then they ask me how it is shooting the gun."

They spend a lot of time looking at military pictures online, he said.

"To them it looks fun, " he said.

The couple surprised the boys with pint-sized Army uniforms for Christmas, clothing they jumped to try on.

"They wouldn't take it off Christmas Eve, " Bryan said. "They were funny, really. They stripped down right in the middle of the living room to put them on. Of course the girls wanted one, too. Now I need to find one for the girls."

The couple tried to remain more low-key about the upcoming deployment when they talked with the younger children, who range in age from 21 months to 6 years old.

"As far as the younger ones know, I'm just going to work for a long time, " Bryan said.

FAMILY CHANGES THINGS
Deploying isn't anything new for Bryan, who was in the Marines from 1996 to 2000.

But those deployments weren't as dangerous and, more importantly, he didn't have a wife and children waiting for him back home.

"I do want to go, " he said, cuddling one of his stepdaughters in his arms a few days before deploying. "Ever since I've gotten out, I've talked about going back. Now, with them ..."

He trails off and looks at the youngsters showing off their toys and vying for his attention.

"I'm doing it for them, " he said. "It is harder for me because of the kids."

It's hard for April Bryan, too, who has no experience with the military. The two met at a funeral in November 2008 and quickly fell in love.

Now both April and Benny's mother, Joyce Fitchett, are almost adopted members of Charlie Company, the 100-plus member unit in which Bryan serves.

The two women drove to Ocala on Tuesday afternoon so they could spend one last night with their soldier before he left.

"It was hard getting dressed and leaving, knowing this was it, " April said about Wednesday morning.

For Fitchett, seeing her only son head into battle fills her with a mixture of pride and worry.

"This is going to be harder on me than when he went in the Marine Corps, " she said. "As long as he will call me or something - I'm not saying I'll be OK, but I'll be better. I believe in what he's doing, for him and for the country."

Bryan and the rest of the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team will be spending about a year in the Middle East, protecting bases and convoys as the U.S. military pulls most of its forces out of Iraq.

It was the job Bryan signed up for in June.

"When I talked to the recruiter, I said I wanted to go on deployment, " he said.

WHAT DEPLOYMENT MEANS
It's unlikely to be his last time heading to war. Although the Guard guarantees members they can stay home for at least two years between deployments, Bryan hopes to transfer to another deploying unit less than a year after getting home.

The decision to do so was one the couple came to during their late-night conversations they had in the days before Bryan headed out, on nights when they forced themselves to go to bed at midnight although they didn't want to sleep.

With the extra money from two deployments, the couple could pay off the house they recently bought and bulk up their savings. It could give a better future to their children.

Even if he doesn't head overseas that soon, Bryan figures he's likely to be deployed again.

"I'm going to do 20 years, " he said. "I'm not going to get out. Not this time."

The couple has other plans for the future, too. A big wedding, maybe in the chapel at Camp Blanding, when Bryan gets back. Coaching his son's Little League team. Finishing remodeling their home.

Those plans will come later, though.

Wednesday morning, the couple just focused on the present, and on each other, and on saying goodbye.

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GUARD DEPLOYS
The largest contingent of Florida National Guard soldiers deployed since World War II departed this week. Nearly 2,500 soldiers from the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team will spend a year in Kuwait and Iraq, mainly serving as security as the United States withdraws most of its presence in Iraq. They'll train in Texas before heading out to the battle zone.



About

This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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