COVINGTON - It was raining outside, but that didn't dampen the spirits of National Guard soldiers and their loved ones who filled the Covington Armory to standing-room-only capacity Friday afternoon for a farewell ceremony as the company prepares for a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
Inclement weather forced the ceremony to be moved from downtown Covington to the armory, and due to space restraints, it was closed to the general public. But the soldiers with Company B 1/121st Infantry of the National Guard's 48th Brigade said the turnout was unlike anything they'd ever witnessed.
"I've seen support before, but I've never seen support like this," said 2nd Lt. Israel Darbe of McDonough. "This is quite the turnout for this kind of event. I like seeing this for my soldiers."
Later, Lt. Shiloh Crane, company commander, told the crowd, "I've never seen a turnout like this in my life from a community supporting their soldiers."
This is the second deployment for Spc. Adam Cloud, a Covington resident who served in Iraq in 2005. He said the event was a chance for him and his comrades to meet each other's families. Cloud said he's geared up for deployment.
"I'm ready to go. The sooner I leave, the sooner I get back," he said.
Mark and Karmen Callaway of McDonough will be praying for three sons to come home safe.
"The older two have already been to Iraq, so I've been through it before but not with three gone," said Karmen Callaway. "I'm going to pray a lot. I have a large support group from my church and my family. I'm relying on God to help me get through it."
The brothers said they're glad they'll have each other's support.
"It'll be easier having them over there," said Sgt. Jared Callaway, 23. "We'll have a common bond. It will bring us closer."
Spc. Seth Callaway, 20, agreed.
"It's going to be awesome. I'm lucky to get to deploy with them," he said.
Also deploying is Sgt. Ryan Callaway, 25.
Jared Callaway called the community support "humbling."
County commissioner Mort Ewing urged the community to continue that support after the soldiers leave.
Ewing said it's been 47 years since he was in their position, and had to rely on others to take care of his family and his business.
"That's what I hope the Newton County family can do for you and your family as you depart the great county of Newton to help keep us and our families free," Ewing said.
Crane, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom shortly after 9/11, assured the crowd there is a marked difference between that deployment and this one.
After 9/11, soldiers weren't sure when they would be mobilizing or even what their mission would be, and had to use old equipment and vehicles that were literally taped together, he said.
In contrast, soldiers with the 48th Brigade have been training for almost a year and have all the top-notch equipment they need, he said.
They will use skills learned in their regular jobs as well as military training to help strengthen the Afghan military and infrastructure, he added.
"We're not going over there as an occupying force, we're not going over there to push America's will or our religion, we're not going over there to try to make them Americans. We're going over there to help better them as Afghans," he said.
Gen. Maria Britt, commanding general of the Georgia Army National Guard, was on hand to commend and encourage the soldiers.
"What makes you even more special is that you're citizen soldiers. You agreed to step up to serve your state and your nation," she said.
Britt told the soldiers to never compromise in doing the right thing while overseas.
"Not only are you soldiers, but you are ambassadors of the United States of America," she said.
More encouragement came from special guest Ken Cook, perhaps Atlanta's best-known weatherman. He reminded soldiers that they are fighting for a just cause.
"The other side destroys stuff. We may fight, we may destroy stuff, but most of the time, we are building something," Cook said. "The other side is like a cancer, and we're like the medicine. The medicine may be bitter and difficult to take, but the medicine works."
Other speakers included Congressman Jim Marshall, D-Georgia, State Sen. John Douglas, R-Social Circle and State Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle.
Douglas and Holt presented the troops with a Georgia flag recently flown over the capitol in their honor to take with them to Afghanistan.
The event also included a performance by the Pride of Eastside Marching Band and singing of the National Anthem by Kristen Turner, daughter of Sgt. Jack Turner.
In closing remarks, Covington Mayor Kim Carter pledged to the soldiers that the community will take care of their families while they are away.
"I want you to know we love you, and we thank you so much. I hope next year when you come home it is a bright, sunny day because we need to have a parade around the Square," she said.
The soldiers will head to Camp Shelby, Miss., on Monday for additional training and are expected to leave for Afghanistan in mid-May.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SideBar: How to help
· Donate to Operation Sandbox, which sends care packages to soldiers overseas. For more information, visit www.operationsandboxga.com or call 770- 784-9155.
· Participate in Operation Patriot's Call, and help provide free services to soldiers' families. For more information, call Family Readiness Coordinator Kim Schroeder at 770-262-0265 or visit www.patriotscall.com.