By Mike O'Neal
Members of a Chattanooga-based National Guard unit filtered through Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport on Sunday, bound first for Texas and then eventually to Iraq.
About 350 members of the 1/181st Field Artillery Battalion have been training at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas, in preparation for deployment to the Middle East. Sunday, the soldiers returned to base after a four-day furlough.
"It was great," said Spc. Jonathan Giamportone, of Rossville. "There's nothing to do in Texas."
The Rossville soldier's parents, Johnny and Teresa Giamportone, and Sandy Hileman, his girlfriend, accompanied the young artilleryman from curbside to concourse.
The parents said their son "wanted Krystals" his first day home, and much of what they recounted of his visit involved food: hamburgers, sushi and Italian meatball sandwiches.
The soldier said about 15 members of his unit decided to have their girlfriends meet them in Las Vegas.
"I came home to visit everybody," Spc. Giamportone said.
Ms. Hileman said she asked what would happen if she kidnapped her soldier, locked him in a closet and refused to let him leave.
"He said the Army would come looking for him, and something about (Fort) Leavenworth (military prison)," she said with a laugh.
A former U.S. Marine, Army Sgt. Chuck Waddell said he joined the National Guard following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and this will be his first overseas deployment.
Saturday, the sergeant; his wife, Tonya; 9-year-old daughter, Morgan; and other family members celebrated his daughter Katie's seventh birthday. Sunday, he sat in an airport terminal with his mother, father, sister, brother-in-law, wife and daughters awaiting a boarding call.
"I've had five brothers in the military -- one was killed in Vietnam -- and I never thought I'd see my son go away," Rita Waddell said after watching until her son's plane no longer was visible. "You're proud of him, but it breaks your heart."
Though they did not travel as a group, it was easy Sunday to spot members of the 1/181st. Most wore camouflage uniforms with combat boots, and all carried camouflage rucksacks.
But instead of moving in loose formation, they were carrying babies, holding hands and spending last minutes with loved ones.
"It was short, too short," said Sgt. 1st Class Ken Duncan when asked about the furlough as he talked quietly with his girlfriend, Sheena Land, and his 14-year-old daughter, Cassie. "I'm tired, but I got to spend time with those I needed to."
Ms. Land was glad to see Sgt. 1st Class Duncan before he left on what is supposed to be a 10-month overseas tour.
"It's hard; it's really hard not to be able to talk to someone you really care about," she said. "They've told me to expect to cry a lot -- you just pray and hope for the best."
Cassie, a Hixson High School freshman, said having her father go to war "is scary, hard and I worry about him all the time."
Sgt. 1st Class Duncan, a veteran of fighting in Afghanistan, said this deployment is different from others, but it never gets easier.
"It is easier on our end because our environment changes, and 40 soldiers become my family and my kids," he said. "People at home are minus a person."
The departure gates Sunday were scenes where sometimes forced laughter mixed with silence and mostly successful efforts to hold back tears.
With her mother-in-law, Reba Moore, at her side, Kathy Slatton stood waving, sniffling and dabbing her eyes as Spc. Jason Slatton boarded the Delta jet that would carry him back to Fort Bliss.
"It was great, but I didn't want anyone else to see him," Mrs. Slatton said.
The last image she has of her husband is of his open hand pressed against the fuselage window as the jet taxied to takeoff.
Some made it a point to have private goodbyes before arriving at the terminal.
"Short, but good," is how Spc. Jackson Thomas, of Chattanooga, described his long weekend in Chattanooga, one marked by family cookouts and visits with friends.
Spc. Thomas said he told his sons, Tavion, 8, and Trinten, 3, goodbye Saturday night.
"It would've been harder at the airport," he said. "I'm glad it's behind me. I'm ready to go get the job done and come home."
E-mail Mike O'Neal at email@example.com