The Gainesville-based 802nd Ordnance Company’s journey to Riverside Military Academy on Tuesday began eight months ago with an e-mail.
The note read something like, “Hey, young commander, you’re going to war,” said Capt. Todd Bostick. “All of the sudden, we went from zero to 100 mph and stayed that way until this event now.”
The U.S. Army Reserve unit was able to catch its breath Tuesday, basking in the well wishes of supporters and dignitaries at a formal send-off at the Gainesville boarding school and along the route from its armory off Shallowford Road.
Soldiers were beaming about the appreciation shown them on the bus ride, Bostick said in the ceremony held before a packed crowd in Riverside’s auditorium.
“We’re going to be gone 400 days, but this experience will stay in our hearts for the rest of our lives,” he said.
He ended his remarks by saying, “We’ve got all of our personnel. We’ve got all our equipment. We’re completely trained. We’re ready to go.
“The last step we have now is to collect those final embraces from our friends and our family members, and the community here, and we’ll take that with us. And we’ll look forward to seeing you when we return.”
Bostick said in an interview afterward the company will head first to Fort Hood, Texas, where they will train before a mid-December deployment to Afghanistan.
“My mission at Fort Hood is to shield my soldiers from ... all the media hype that’s going on out there so we can focus on the mission at hand,” he said, referring to the Nov. 5 massacre of 13 people at the Army base.
Before the ceremony, several people stood at Riverside’s entrance awaiting the 802nd’s arrival and waved as the soldiers drifted by in their vehicles.
One of the supporters was Gainesville’s Allen Turner, a member of the 802nd from 1971 to 1996.
“It was probably the best unit I’ve ever been around. They always had high standards everywhere they went,” said Turner, wearing an Army sweatshirt and 802nd ball cap and carrying a U.S. flag.
Others along the route said they felt compelled to show their support for the soldiers.
“I am proud to be an American. I applaud these troops. I’ve got two nephews who are in Afghanistan now,” said Sharrill Martin.
Tammy Reed said, “These guys deserve our support. They’re out there every day risking their lives for us, so we can stand outside in the rain and say goodbyes and wish them good luck.”
At the ceremony, a bevy of public officials expressed their support for the soldiers, including Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell, who read a proclamation from the Hall County Board of Commissioners and Gainesville City Council.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Hall County resident, told the audience, “We gather today not just to see you off and pray for your safe return, but to say ‘thanks’ and recognize all you do in service to our nation.”
Members of the 802nd also took part in the ceremony. Master Sgt. Steffine Traverse sang the national anthem and Chaplain Thomas Townsend gave the invocation and benediction.
“Lord, I just lift up every one of my soldiers and that you give them the same emotional and spiritual growth and transformation you gave me when I was deployed many years ago,” Townsend said in his closing prayer.
After the ceremony, soldiers were dismissed to share last moments with loved ones and friends.
The quadrangle at Riverside was filled with people hugging and snapping cameras for posed photos.
“It’s hard for any family to have to go through something like this,” said Brandie Rigdon of Augusta. “The only thing you’re going to do is make sure you support the soldiers ... and let them know you love ‘em and we’re going to be there for them.”
Her husband is Pfc. Anthony Rigdon.
Her plan over the next 400 days is to stay busy.
“Work, go to school, do what you can to keep it off your mind,” she said.
Lydia Brown of Commerce said she was feeling “sad, a bit overwhelmed” by Tuesday’s events.
“We have Skype, so we’re going to get to talk over the Internet and see each other, hopefully on a regular basis,” she said. “And I have family nearby and I’m close to his family.”
Her husband, Pfc. Tyson Brown, said he was expecting the deployment would happen. The e-mail months ago served as confirmation.
But as he stood among the fortress-like buildings at Riverside, he said, with a smile, “I’m ready to come home already.”
Hall County school system mentee Nicki Price contributed to this report.