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.