Crowds send off troops with flags, fanfare

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 14, 2009

NATCHEZ — Looking over a checklist on the backseat of his Humvee, National Guard Sgt. Montreal Shelton was preparing for his longest deployment from home Monday.

He checked the oil, the mileage and the tires.

“It looks good,” he said. “I think we’re good to go.”

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Less than 20 minutes later, Shelton and his fellow guardsmen from the National Guard’s 1st Battalion 155th Brigade, were on the first leg of a journey that will take them to the war in Iraq by early summer.

Shelton, a 21-year-old Natchez native, said his 400-day deployment will be the most time he’s ever spent outside of Natchez.

“Right now, I’m not nervous,” he said. “When we get there, then I think I’ll be nervous.”

This tour in Iraq will be Shelton’s first.

As Shelton finished his vehicle inspection, his fellow guardsmen milled around the Liberty Road armory awaiting departure.

A few soldiers hung out around the Coke machine and another bunch stood in the back of the armory smoking cigarettes and laughing.

In a room off to the side, Private First Class Eldrich Proctor and Private First Class Richard Felton sat quietly discussing their first deployment.

“You can’t think about all the bad stuff,” Felton said, considering his first deployment to a combat zone. “You have to keep your focus on the good.”

Once in Iraq, the 155th will be guarding transport routes.

The roads they guard will be used to bring supplies to other troops.

Proctor said while he’s not nervous yet, he, like Felton, will keep a focus on any positive things he can find.

“You have to stay self-motivated and upbeat,” Proctor said. “You have to stay strong.”

But staying strong thousands of miles away from friends and family is not always easy.

Shelton said he thinks the separation from his family, specifically his 10-month-old son, will be the hardest thing to deal with.

“We’ll be busy all day long,” Shelton said. “But when you lay down to go to sleep and you start looking at those pictures, that’s when it’s going to get hard.”

But for some of the guardsmen, the work they do is just that — work.

First Sgt. Gregory Doss spent all of 2005 in Iraq.

And he’s not nervous about going back, he said while making last minute preparations in the armory.

“It’s what we’re called for,” he said. “This is what we do.”

Outside the armory, Doss’ wife, Brenda, was leaving after visiting with her husband.

“It’s hard,” she said. “It’s always hard.”

While Brenda Doss said her husband’s departures are never easy, she feels the troops have more control over the situation in Iraq and feels slightly better about the situation.

“That helps to put my mind at ease,” she said. “But you still worry.”

And to make Monday’s departure a little easier and a little more memorable, hundreds of Natchez residents turned out to see the battalion off.

Waving flags and clapping, the crowd cheered as a caravan of military vehicles drove out of the armory’s parking lot.

By today, the troops will be at Camp Shelby for additional training, then in Iraq by the summer.

And until they get back, countless parents, children and siblings will be awaiting their return.

Mildred Bell was in the crowd to see her son for the last time in a long time to come.

“They’re going over there to fight for us,” Bell said. “So we’ll be here with our love for them.”