Spc. Jobel Barbosa had spent the past hour with his family in a parking lot after a public ceremony marking his unit’s deployment to a war that’s coming to an end. It was time to go.
As other National Guardsmen boarded a white bus behind him, Spc. Barbosa hugged his mother, two sisters, his daughter, his girlfriend and their baby girl, then turned to join the other troops. His four-day leave, the last time he would see his family for a year, was over.
“It takes everything I got to keep it inside,” he said.
While the gaze of generals has drifted east to Afghanistan, the last waves of American troops are headed into Iraq. Among them: 4,000 soldiers of the 30th Heavy Brigade of the North Carolina National Guard combat team, including the 76 men of Spc. Barbosa’s bomb-clearing unit, and E Company, which departed days ago from its base in tiny Hamlet, a close-knit community long abandoned by the good jobs that made it a prosperous railroad town.
It has been six years since the U.S. invaded Iraq, and fewer soldiers are dying there. That does little to console the families of those just shipping out - the troops’ absence at home causes as much strain there as their presence in a faraway combat zone.
“We’re praying nothing happens,” said Spc. Barbosa’s mother, Rosa Lamourt. “But you can never be sure.”
Jackie Webb knows the drill; this is Sgt. 1st Class Brian Webb’s second tour in Iraq.
In early April, as he shuttled between four different bases to prepare for deployment, she was up all night watching over their sick 2-year-old daughter Alivia, one of the couple’s three children.
“Brian is so good at helping take care of the kids,” said Mrs. Webb, who oversees three bank branches.
A full-time member of the National Guard, Sgt. Webb runs the day-to-day operations at the Hamlet armory. Most nights he has dinner ready for Jackie and the children. Now she depends on family and friends to pitch in.
“I’ve been here before,” she said. “I know what to expect. But it’s getting harder and harder.”
Her birthday fell during his two-week stint at the military’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. He wanted to call, but the soldiers had to give up their cell phones when they arrived, part of their preparation for being out of contact.
Sgt. Webb expects to find a still dangerous but far tamer Iraq than the one he saw in 2004. He also knows all the missed birthdays over the years, all the times he wasn’t there for his family. And he knows they’re all going through it all over again.
Tracy Partridge recently had a taste of how her life will change when her son, Sgt. Justin Detter, is deployed. A single mother, she talks with her 23-year-old son almost every night.