Sue Johnson knew the departure day was coming. She'd been through this when her husband was deployed to Iraq in 2009.
But the past experience proved little comfort to Johnson of Turnersville, New Jersey, as she spent the last few minutes with her husband, in the shade of trees, before he joined his unit for a farewell ceremony Wednesday at Doughboy Field at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
"I don't think you can prepare for this," Johnson, 47. "I just take it one day at a time."
Staff Sgt. Richard Johnson is one of more than 450 members of the New Jersey Army National Guard who will leave this Friday for final training at Fort Bliss, Texas, then head to Qatar as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The soldiers of the First Battalion of the 114th Infantry represents the largest deployment of Guard troops since 2008, when 2,800 from the state served in the 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Iraq.
They come from the Mount Holly, Woodbury and Freehold armories — and from all 21 counties of the state — and will provide security for an American base, where military equipment from Afghanistan is being stored during the drawdown of forces there.
About one third of the unit — 174 — is from Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties, New Jersey. Another 66 are from Ocean and Monmouth counties.
"I know today is the day," said Sue Johnson, who was with her daughter Kiersten, 21, and granddaughter Emerie, 2. "It's hard saying goodbye.
"The first (deployment) was hard, because he went to Iraq and was in a pretty dangerous spot," she said. "I tried not to watch the news."
Now, the couple will be apart for a year.
"I wouldn't say this easier," said Richard Johnson, who works as a millwright for SEPTA. "I'm not really looking forward to separation from my family, but I know there is a job I have to do.
"You just suck it up," said Johnson, who has been in the Guard for 22 years. "I'm fulfilling my obligation."
With battles raging in Iraq, he said he knows "anything can happen and his time could be extended — and that I could even be rerouted there."
But that's seems unlikely at this point. "It drove me nuts when I didn't hear from him" when he was in Iraq, said Sue Johnson. "You always fear the worst. This one, he assures me, is a safer mission."