Family, friends say goodbye as 776th departs

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   There was an unfamiliar silence in many Carter County homes last night: the absence of a familiar voice.
   Cold, gray skies matched the somber mood of family and friends who gathered inside the Tennessee National Guard Armory Thursday morning to say goodbye to members of the 776th Maintenance Company.
   The Company's roughly 175 members spent their final few hours in Elizabethton embracing spouses and holding children before heading to Fort Campbell, Ky.
   "It means different things to different people," Capt. Larry Northcutt, commander of the 776th, said of the activation. "To me, it represents an opportunity for the members of the 776th to once again demonstrate their true grit and resolve in answering the call of duty for our country."
   The state flag of Tennessee and the flag of the city of Elizabethton were presented to the company by state and local government officials during a ceremony prior to their departure.
   The first of three convoys of military trucks departed the armory shortly after 8 a.m. with scores of citizens braving the cold weather to wave goodbye along the convoy route through town.
   The company's next destination remains unnamed -- but is hardly a mystery to most Americans who have followed the hawkish rhetoric of the White House.
   President Bush said in his State of Union address Tuesday that the United States would ask the U.N. Security Council to convene on Feb. 5 to consider the issue of Iraq and UN weapons inspectors. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to brief the Security Council about Iraq's alleged illegal weapons programs and links to terrorist groups.
   In his address, Bush stated, "If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him."
   The 776th provides support and mechanical maintenance for almost all wheeled military vehicles ranging from jeeps to utility vehicles.
   "This is the third time for some to have been called to active duty," said Northcutt who cited 776th members who served in Vietnam, the Gulf War and now in Operation Noble Eagle.
   Tears flowed freely from many family members who said farewell to sons and daughters who could serve on active duty for up to one year. Family members who spoke with the Star on Thursday said the past two weeks since the company was activated have been difficult.
   "It's been worrisome," said Patricia Roark who's ex-husband has been a member of the company since 1996. "I feel like it could be bad. As a family we have to pull together to support one another."
   The Roarks' daughter Christina felt President Bush's father would have taken more aggressive and decisive actions against Iraq by now.
   "I think President Bush needs to get his stuff together and make a decision on what he's going to do, because there is so much stuff going on," she said.
   Wanda Payne said her son joined the company's Mountain City detachment four years ago while he was still a senior in high school.
   "He went in when he was 17, mainly for the education and scholarship benefits," said Payne. "We are clinging to the hope that they will go and stay at Campbell. I think it's harder to send a son than it is a spouse," she said.
   Payne also did not mince words about her opposition to the increasingly rapid mobilization of military personnel.
   "I think it is premature," she said. "When we sent 450,000 troops over there in 1990 there was a lot going on ... they were torching oil fields and a lot of things."
   Christine Northcutt is serving as director of the 776th family assistance group for families of 776th troops while they are away. The group will be working in consort with the American Red Cross and other agencies to provide necessary support for family members while guard members are gone, she said.
   "We coordinate with everybody to assess the family's needs," she said.
   Employees of the Alliance for Business and Training (ABT) located near the armory held up signs reading "God Bless America" and "Protect Freedom" as the convoy departed.
   "It's a smalltown, and we all have friends and family and we care about them," said Ginger Lyons, ABT employee.
   Tennessee has absorbed its fair share of National Guard and reservist activation with more than 2,100 National Guard and reserve members deployed since August. According to the Tennessee Military Department and the Department of Defense, 1,619 National Guard personnel and 533 reservists had been called to duty as of Thursday.
   The 776th was among 15 Tennessee Army and six Air National Guard units called up to support Desert Storm and Shield in 1990. The unit was placed on alert for possible mobilization by the Tennessee Army National Guard on Dec. 14. The unit was mobilized for active duty on Jan. 22.
   Several camcorders rolled during the procolamation ceremony and afterwards. The gravity of what guard members could face in the coming weeks weighed heavily on the minds of loved ones.
   "I know the Kuwaitis and the Iraqis have families and are going to lose people," Patricia Roark said, sobbing, "but this is my family ... and I want him home safe."