War winds down, but 776th families remain wary

By Thomas Wilson

   While the U.S. military's triumph in Iraq has dominated the news, the families of one National Guard unit on active duty likely won't breathe easier until their soldiers are back home.
   "It is getting a little better, but it's not over," said Christine Northcutt, wife of Capt. Larry Northcutt, commander of the 776th Maintenance Company based in Elizabethton. Northcutt is the coordinator of the company's "Family Readiness Group", gauging the needs and emotional health of guard families.
   The 156 members of the 776th were mobilized for active duty in December and departed Elizabethton to Fort Campbell, Ky., on Jan. 30. The company also maintains a detachment in Mountain City.
   Northcutt was in Elizabethton Tuesday to meet with the Elizabethton-Carter County Veterans War Memorial Committee. The committee gathered to work out final plans for "Operation Yellow Ribbon", a salute to members and families of the 776th and the 730th Quartermaster Supply Company based in Gray. The ceremony will be held at Cat Island Memorial Park on South Main Street at noon on Saturday.
   Northcutt will speak at the ceremony with a message titled "Who Packed Your Parachute?". Derived from a popular e-mail message, Northcutt said the title focused on the role of supply and maintenance units such as the 776th and 730th in military operations.
   The 776th is comprised of mechanics trained to repair and maintain a variety of military vehicles, while the 730th directs supply, including the major job of water purification. Good maintenance and supply lines, while perhaps not the stuff of Hollywood war movies, play an invaluable role in the success of any military campaign, Northcutt said.
   "Maybe it's not the thing everybody is excited about knowing about," she said. "The tanks had to be able to roll into Baghdad, and maintenance had to put on the treads to make that happen."
   The 776th has maintained support operations at Fort Campbell, Ky. Several members of the 730th have been deployed to the Persian Gulf and are now in Iraq.
   Family members of the 776th had the opportunity to see soldiers if they could make the 400-mile trip to Fort Campbell, which lies north of Nashville.
   "We are pretty fortunate because we get to go to Fort Campbell and see husbands and wives," said Northcutt, who resides in Knoxville with the couple's son and daughter. She said she had made the trip to the military base three times since her husband had been deployed. The proximity of the unit still made for emotional struggles for many families who saw their sons and daughters briefly, then had to depart again.
   "Children can see their mom or dad, but they have to leave again, so there is that separation anxiety that starts again," Northcutt said. Family members had primarily gone individually as work and school schedules allow, she added. "I know a really important aspect for the families is all the support they've received from the city of Elizabethton and their church groups," she said.
   According to the Department of Defense, Tennessee National Guard and Reserve units number in the thousands with units activated from Mountain City to Memphis. Tennessee Army National Guard members number over 2,700 and 796 Air National Guard members were serving on active duty as of May 7. Over 1,300 Tennessee reservists, from the U.S. Army, Marine Corps and Navy are also on activated duty around the world.
   American flags and yellow ribbons have been prominently displayed throughout Northeast Tennessee since reservists and members of the Tennessee National Guard were mobilized in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
   The committee expects a big turnout to support the men and women of the 776th and 730th who have been activated, as well as their families, friends and loved ones, according to Deacon Bowers, chairman of the Veterans War Memorial Committee.
   Each National Guard and Reserve unit has it's own family readiness group to enjoin the families of military members nationwide. The city of Elizabethton initiated a fund to support families of 776th members if serious needs pertaining to housing or basic needs arose. Northcutt added that she was not at all surprised at the successful military campaign in Iraq. However, she remained wary of ongoing skirmishes around the country.
   "We have good maintenance and good soldiers, so I'm not surprised at how it happened," she said. "I'm still on guard because there are still battles going on, and I'm concerned about all the soldiers over there."