WILKES-BARRE – "May the Lord bring them home safe."
Military chaplain Capt. Anthony Guerrero said what family and friends were thinking Friday morning inside the 109th Field Artillery Armory during a brief prayer service as 160 soldiers said goodbye before a one-year deployment to Kuwait.
"It's a very emotional and hard day," 21-year-old Kayla Bessner, 21, of Duryea said with her husband Colin, 21, by her side. Minutes later the newly married spouse joined his fellow soldiers.
Because the 109th Field Artillery has been a source of manpower in the battle against terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Friday's scene has been played out many times:
Farewells were made twice last week to soldiers who will first stop at a military base in Mississippi before being sent overseas to Kuwait. The 185 soldiers deployed this week are part of the 55th Brigade, Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Stella said, which is sending 1,500 soldiers from the armory, Scranton and Philadelphia.
About 850 soldiers have been deployed locally – some more than once – to Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Bosnia and Kuwait.
By the end of the year, Stella said, more than 2,000 Pennsylvania National Guard members will be in Kuwait or Afghanistan.
"I occasionally get asked why we are sending troops to Kuwait or why we are deploying the (Army National) Guard at all since operations in Iraq are over and operations in Afghanistan are drawing down," Stella said.
"I simply state that there are U.S. military presences in nearly 150 countries around the world … they all play a vital role in the overall defense strategy."
This is Colin Bessner's first deployment overseas, and though he is nervous, he is excited and ready to begin the journey.
His family and two young nieces, 4 and 1, were at the 109th Armory to see him off – all of them already anticipating his first call home.
"Our family is very supportive," Kayla said. "Being alone will take a lot of getting used to, but we'll keep in touch with Skype (a video-Internet chat technology)."
Taylor Rozell, 20, of Nanticoke, was also leaving someone new in his life – his 1-year-old son, Taylor Jr.
"I'll miss him," the neophyte father said, who was with several family members Friday.
This will also be Rozell's first deployment, and he said he has been preparing for a while, spending time with family as much as possible.
"I told (the kids), no crying until we get to the car," Patty Toroni of Clarks Summit said.
The eldest of her three children, Jason Sterner, 20, is part of the deployment after being in the military for about a year.
His little sister, Courtney, wiped away tears as she said how much she is going to miss her brother, and held on to their youngest brother, Kevin.
"Waiting to talk to him … to make sure he is OK … is going to be rough," Toroni said. "But we'll keep in touch when we can. Skype makes it easier now."
Stella said all of the soldiers being deployed will first go to Camp Shelby in Mississippi for training for about a month.
Once trained, evaluated and validated, they will be cleared to be deployed to one of three Army bases in Kuwait.
Some will work 9-to-5 jobs, Stella said, while others will have varying shifts.
But the mission is the same.
"Force protection," Stella said. "Basically, securing our areas in Kuwait."
Stella said some will man gates, others will conduct inspections and monitor planes coming in and out of bases.
But, there's always the chance of an attack.
"You just never know," Stella said.
When the deployment is over this time next year, soldiers will go through a similar process as they did when they began their deployment.
They'll return to Mississippi and attend briefings to reintegrate them back into the civilian world.
Then they'll make their way back to the armory and attend welcome-home and reintegration ceremonies.
Stella said the 55th Brigade was originally scheduled to be deployed to Qatar, a peninsula in western Asia and an Arab state.
But, after troops were taken out of Iraq, more active duty soldiers became available for security missions, and the 185 local soldiers weren't needed until a later date.
The mission then became Kuwait.
"Operation Enduring Freedom-Kuwait … specifically plays a very important role in military operations in the central command region, which includes the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia," Stella said.