Thousands gathered Wednesday at the Oklahoma City Arena and Cox Convention Center to bid farewell to members of the Oklahoma National Guard as they prepare to deploy to Afghanistan.
About 3,400 members of the Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team will train for the next few months before deploying in early summer. It will be the largest deployment for the state since the Korean War.
Gov. Mary Fallin and a host of military brass spoke to the soldiers and their families at Wednesday's ceremony.
“The mission you are embarking upon is the latest chapter in the great tradition of service,” Fallin said. “Your service in Afghanistan is part of one of the greatest and most important tasks of our time — the war against terror.”
Police directed traffic as thousands clogged downtown streets before and after the ceremony. People began showing up hours before the 11:30 a.m. start.
Angela Wernke and Brittany Cole arrived at 8:30 a.m. Wernke, 30, of Edmond, and Cole, 24, of Oklahoma City, were there to see off their husbands.
Wernke said her husband, Staff Sgt. Peter Wernke, has been deployed before.
“We kinda snuck in early,” Angela Wernke said. “This is the third one of these I've been to, so I know how it works.”
That doesn't mean this deployment will be any easier. Wernke said she will be home with her three children, ages 4, 6 and 14.
“The kids got older, and they understand now,” Wernke said. “The longer you are with someone, the more responsibilities you have, and now all of those responsibilities are mine.”
Cole has a different set of challenges. She held her 8-month-old daughter during the ceremony. She said taking care of a baby on her own won't be easy, but she knew what she was getting into when she married her husband, Spc. Adam Cole. They met right after he returned from a deployment to Iraq.
“At least she's not old enough she's going to be asking for daddy all day,” Brittany Cole said. “You've got things now like the Internet and Skype. He's going to be there as much as possible.”
Another of Wednesday's speakers knows what the families will be going through. Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III is the director of the Air National Guard. Wyatt led the Oklahoma National Guard until 2009, when he was promoted to his new position at the Pentagon.
Wyatt's son, Maj. Colby Wyatt, is among the soldiers deploying to Afghanistan. It is his third overseas deployment.
“We need to make sure we have each other's backs,” Lt. Gen. Wyatt said, addressing family members in attendance.
Fallin said it is important people realize it isn't just the soldiers making sacrifices. Their families are also sacrificing for their country as their soldiers are gone for a year.
“They are going to miss birthdays and anniversaries, maybe the first day of school for a child or maybe even the birth of a child,” Fallin said. “Families, we are going to be here for you. We are going to be here as a state.”
In addition to the soldiers from the 45th, some smaller units also will deploy, including the 146th Air Support Operations Squadron from the Oklahoma Air National Guard. It is the first time units from the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guards will deploy in support of one another.
Several teams from other Guard units also will deploy to help train members of the Afghan military.
The main ceremony took place inside the Oklahoma City Arena, but some soldiers and airmen watched with their families from the Cox Convention Center to make room for all those attending. The ceremony included video presentations and music from the 145th Army Band.
Families and friends frequently broke into applause and stood for the soldiers.
The troops are preparing to begin training at Camp Gruber, near Muskogee, and will receive more training at Fort Polk, La., before they head overseas, likely in June. The 45th will take part in both offensive and defensive operations in Afghanistan and will be in the thick of fighting there.
Maj. Gen. Myles L. Deering, adjutant general for the state, led the 45th when it deployed to Iraq in 2008. The unit did not lose anyone on that deployment. Deering said the 45th will be ready when it leaves for Afghanistan.
“It will be one of the finest trained and led units in the United States military, not just the National Guard,” Deering said.