Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

‘It’s not goodbye, it’s just farewell’

Rockville-based military police unit prepares for Iraq

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Members of the 352nd Military Police Company, who are heading to Iraq, are pictured at their send-off ceremony last Thursday at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville.
Above the feelings of fear, sadness, anger and anxiety, the soldiers of the 352nd Military Police Company and their families felt proud as the unit prepared to be deployed to Iraq for the first time.

The Rockville-based unit said farewell during a ceremony on Thursday at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre at the Rockville Civic Center. Two days later, they left for Fort Dix in New Jersey for 50 days of training before leaving for Iraq.

‘‘It’s not goodbye, it’s just farewell,” Cheryl Leighty, of Dover, Pa., said, dabbing tears from her eyes. The deployment marks the first time her 19-year-old daughter, Pvt. Nichole Leighty, will leave home for a long period of time.

Nichole’s father Kevin said his feelings about his daughter’s deployment are a mix of pride and being ‘‘scared to death.”

‘‘We always knew [deployment] was a possibility because we were at war when she joined,” he said. ‘‘We’re not shocked she’s going, but more notice would’ve been nice.”

The Leightys found out Nichole was leaving the night of Christmas Eve.

Nichole, who has wanted to join the Army since her older brother joined and served in Operation Desert Storm, said she is nervous about being deployed, but is confident in herself and her leaders.

‘‘I’m in a good unit with a lot of good leaders who know what they’re doing and have been there more than once,” she said.

The soldiers will be assigned to deal with detainees and prisoners of war in Iraq for about nine to 10 months.

Col. Dennis J. McGlone, one of Thursday’s speakers, touched upon the recent issue of the mistreatment of detainees by U.S. soldiers.

‘‘That was a black eye on the Army and a black eye on our country,” McGlone said. ‘‘I’ve told the soldiers that they have the absolute right to defend themselves, but at the same time they have no authority to abuse the prisoners, either verbally or physically.”

The 352nd Military Police Company was formed in 1943 during World War II in Louisiana and relocated several times before settling at the Maus-Warfield U.S. Army Reserve Center in Rockville in 1999. McGlone said this is the first time the unit will be deployed overseas.

For many of the soldiers, this will be their first time being deployed overseas.

Matthew Sidairis just completed basic training and did not have much time with his family before preparing for deployment. But despite the reservations of his family and friends, the 19-year-old from Lancaster, Pa., is optimistic about leaving.

‘‘A lot of people ask me about it and I try really not to think of it like that,” Sidairis said. ‘‘I’m glad to serve and be a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and do some good for the world.”

For Belinda Keller’s only son, Sgt. Christopher J. Keller, joining the Army was all he wanted to do since learning his father was a captain in the Vietnam War.

Christopher Keller, 23, of Washington, D.C., joined the Army at 18, while attending school and working part-time as a bouncer at a nightclub in the District.

‘‘The threat of deployment has been looming for a long time, and I had hoped Iraq would be behind us by now but unfortunately it isn’t,” Belinda Keller said. ‘‘Now that deployment is here, I am on an emotional roller coaster – first I’m proud, then scared, then angry and then sad and then the cycle starts all over again.”

Capt. Tad Marinelli, commander of the unit, held back tears as he told the soldiers how proud he was of them.

‘‘You will contribute to the greater peace and greater freedom,” Marinelli said.

‘‘When this is over, you will remember this. You will feel real job satisfaction. You are men and women of great character, and above all,” Marinelli paused to fight back tears, ‘‘I am proud of you today. I am proud to be part of this unit and afterwards I will have more reason to be proud of you.”