Tears, hugs as Florida National Guard unit deploys
By JOHN CHAMBLISS | The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla. | Published: January 8, 2018
LAKELAND, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Bryan Kirkland of Lakeland clutched his three children in a long hug Sunday afternoon.
Monte Klein of Ocala couldn't let go of his 3-year-old son, Parker.
It was a scene repeated over and over full of hugs, tears, and expressions of love as a 120-member unit from the Florida Army National Guard said goodbye to loved ones at Joker Marchant Stadium before they left for a year-long mission in the Middle East.
"I'm anxious," said Kirkland, 31, as he held his wife, Joann. "I'm already ready to come back."
The couple has had a year to think about the deployment.
"We wanted the year to slow down," Joann Kirkland said as the family stood together in a circle. She said this deployment was harder to prepare for than Kirkland's previous mission to Qatar when the couple had a month's notice.
Kirkland's mother, Jule Wright, said she was "proud, nervous and a little scared" for her son.
She and Joann Kirkland plan to Skype and use Facebook messenger as much as they can. That communication can be sporadic, though. Wright said last time when she hadn't heard from her son, she wondered whether he was safe, hungry or cold.
Kirkland's grandmother, Judy Colding, served in the Army from 1960 to 1962. She said she gave Kirkland a pin she received on Veteran's Day last year.
"I told him he's got to bring it back to me," Colding said.
Klein, 35, volunteered for the duty. Two of his boys, Aiden, 4, and Parker, 3, grabbed at their father's camouflage pants as he spoke about the upcoming year.
"It's harder this time," Klein said. "But it's what I'm supposed to be doing."
His mother, Vonnie Klein, has a second son in the military.
"It's my fourth time saying goodbye like this," Klein said. "It certainly doesn't get any easier."
The departing unit was the 3rd Battalion, 116th Field Artillery Regiment based in Plant City. They were expected to take a bus to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport and board a plane to Texas. From there, they planned to fly to an undisclosed location in the Middle East. Most of the members of the Guard, who trained in Avon Park, were from Central Florida.
Hundreds of people sat in the stands at the stadium as National Guard officials and Gov. Rick Scott spoke to the unit as the stood on the baseball field. In addition to Scott, numerous politicians attended, including U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz, and City Commissioners Scott Franklin, Michael Dunn and Stephanie Madden.
Battery Commander Capt. Korey Sims said during a brief speech that the group had trained for their mission for a year.
He thanked all the family members who are staying behind. "You take care of our children, homes and pets," Sims said. "You didn't volunteer for this like we did."
"We'll be back soon," he said.
Scott thanked the group for their service, describing Florida as the "most military friendly state in the nation."
"If it wasn't for individuals like you, we wouldn't have these freedoms," Scott said.
Fort Meade resident Raul Rodriguez, 58, a first sergeant with the unit, plans to retire when he returns from the mission. Rodriguez currently works at The Mosaic Company.
His wife, Gloria, watched him board a bus. She said it's his fourth deployment since 2003.
She and other family members will have support while their loved ones are away. Rodriguez coordinates the unit's family readiness program.
"I'm nervous," she said. "But we'll be checking up on each other."
John Chambliss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org