By JB Clark
CALHOUN CITY – While many troops are returning home and the number of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan decrease, The Mississippi National Guard’s 858th Horizontal Construction Company is preparing for what many hope will be their last deployment to Afghanistan.
The company was the first engineering company deployed to Iraq in 2003 and then returned in 2009.
Batallion Commander Lt. Col. Eric Croke addressed the company on the square in Calhoun City Saturday morning as a part of the community’s official send-off.
“In 2003, I deployed with this unit as the battalion XO to Iraq, and here we are a decade later, and honestly I wish we weren’t here,” Croke said. “I wish we weren’t asking you to go on a third deployment in 10 years. I wish we weren’t asking you to walk away from your family for a year and to miss that year in your child’s development because you’re not going to get that back. But, we are here because you are unique individuals, and you’ve made a commitment that very few are willing to make to this country.”
Families and community members gathered in the center of town Saturday, hugging their soldiers and promising their prayers and thoughts over the next nine months.
The company will be deploying to Afghanistan to retrograde everything the military doesn’t need and then turn operations over to the Afghan forces.
“When Mississippi called for engineers in 2003, you were the first ones called up, and here we are on the tail end of this war on terrorism hopefully – at least in Afghanistan – and I think you’re going to write the final chapter,” Croke said.
“You’re going to be the last engineers from Mississippi, in my opinion, to deploy to Afghanistan. You’re writing history, and you need to be proud of that.”
The company’s commanding officer, Capt. Robert Sanders, said it is bittersweet to deploy at a time when many solders are coming home, ”But, we’re the ones to close the door and put the key under the mat, and we’re excited about that.”
Spc. William Hancock, of Pontotoc, will be leaving behind his 16-month-old son, Austin, for his first deployment. Hancock said he knows it will be hard, but he is excited to get to be a part of the deployment that could be the last.
Jordan Hancock said they’ll stay in touch with Skype, but she is still on edge, nervous and emotional approaching his first deployment.
The troops will leave Monday morning, making a lap around the Calhoun City square at 8:30 before deploying for more than nine months.