FORT RICHARDSON - Long after the rousing music and ceremonial speeches had faded, after all the emotional farewells with loved ones had been said, 125 uniformed soldiers stood in clusters, waiting Wednesday morning inside a cavernous room at this Army post.
It was time to go to war.
There was nothing left to do here but board the plane that would take them to the first stop on their way to Iraq and a yearlong assignment with fellow members of Alaska's 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team.
"I feel pretty darn good," said 1st Lt. Rob Snyder, 24. "I'm ready to go."
The soldiers are from the brigade's 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. They are some of the last to leave of the 3,800 brigade members departing from Alaska - 700 from Fort Richardson near Anchorage and 3,100 from Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks. Most are heading out this week, with a two-week stop in Kuwait before continuing to northern Iraq.
It's the largest deployment from Alaska since the Vietnam War. The soldiers have spent almost two years preparing for their mission.
They will replace a Stryker force from Fort Lewis, Wash., that has seen more than 30 combat deaths. But the men interviewed Wednesday said they're not dwelling on the dangers they face in the war, which already has taken the lives of more than 1,800 members of the U.S. military.
Their focus is on the job ahead, they said, including front-line duties, patrols and conducting raids.
"We trained really hard," said Pfc. Xavier Coleman, 19. "Sure, everybody's scared. If you're not scared about your own life, you get reckless. But my confidence outweighs any fears I have."
Some, like 26-year-old Cpl. Zack Los Banos, said they felt no fear at all - at least not yet.
"See all these guys around me? That's why," he said.
The only time Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Peppin feels nervous is when he wonders about the unknowns. So he tries not to think about that, even though he prepared a will and made sure his wife is financially prepared "just in case."
Peppin, 31, said he normally watches a lot of TV news, including footage of the war. And that hasn't stopped, although he believes it's not a good way to fully understand a soldier's experience. For the complete picture, he relies on military friends who have returned from Iraq.
"You just hear about the bad stuff in the news," Peppin said. "You don't hear about all the schools being built, about all the Iraqi people who love the Americans."
It was finally time to go late Wednesday morning. The soldiers walked single file toward the plane, all carrying rucksacks and rifles, machine guns or other small arms. At the base of the Boeing 757, each man was greeted by the battalion commander, Lt. Col. John Norris, who was set to depart himself with more soldiers Wednesday night.
"Good luck. I'll see you in a few hours," he told the men, shaking their hands.
Norris, 42, a Desert Storm veteran, said he has no doubt the brigade will excel in the latest war in the Middle East.
"They came to me as young soldiers, young boys," he said. "These boys have been transformed into confident warriors."
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