With the three platoons of the Georgia Army National Guard’s Charlie Company assembled in the back lot of their Gainesville armory, Squires wished them well in their next mission: helping train security forces in Afghanistan.
"You’re like a second family to me," said Squires, who at 49 was the oldest member of the 132-soldier company. "I will definitely miss you when you go to Afghanistan. I’ll be thinking of you. I hope you have the same success that you did in Iraq, and that everyone comes back safely, like you did before."
Squires said his goodbyes at the company’s annual Christmas gathering, which came just days after the official news of its deployment to Afghanistan in 2009.
The company, of the 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment, 48th Brigade, was deployed to Iraq in May 2005 and returned stateside in April 2006, every man accounted for. Squires earned a Purple Heart after taking shrapnel from an insurgent’s grenade.
Saturday, he was awarded the Career Service Medal for 27 years with the Army and Army National Guard.
"He set a fine example for the young guys," said 1st Sgt. Bobby Mayfield. He recounted how Squires, a certified emergency medical technician, saved the life of an Iraqi policeman wounded in a firefight by administering first aid while under fire.
"He’s been a tremendous asset," Mayfield said.
"It’s a big loss for us," company commander Capt. Justin Ririe said, noting Squires’ experience and ability to mentor younger soldiers. "He was our elder statesman."
Squires leaves a company that faces more than a year of training before putting boots back down on the sands of the Middle East. Deployment is scheduled for summer 2009.
The news was met by troops with a mixture of stoicism, anticipation and pride.
"As a member of the Georgia National Guard, I felt honored to be selected to serve with my fellow soldiers," said Cpl. Michael Ayers of Gainesville, a six-year veteran of the Guard who served in Iraq. "Someone in the higher-up headquarters felt we were capable of doing the job. We prided ourselves as a combat-ready unit in Iraq, and if that’s what the higher-ups want me to do, then I’m honored to do so."
Whether Afghanistan is more or less dangerous than Iraq doesn’t play into Ayers’ thinking.
"The danger is there, and as an infantry unit, that’s our job," he said. "But I don’t really focus on what level of danger there is from place to place. As long as we stay sharp and stay focused, I don’t see a problem."
Pvt. Ricky Cox of Gainesville, who joined the Guard two years ago, will get his first taste of
service on foreign soil. Cox knew the deployment was inevitable.
"A war was going on when I signed up, and I knew at some point it would be my time to go," he said.
Cox said the experience and leadership in his unit has him confident of a successful mission.
"With their experience being in Iraq, I’ve got confidence that things are going to turn out well," Cox said. "We’ve got outstanding leaders around here."
Battalion commander Lt. Col. Andy Hall, fresh off a plane from Germany to meet with the troops Saturday, said of the group, "in my opinion, they’re the best infantry company in the United States, and I have six companies."
"This unit stays ready," he said.
The unit will have the luxury of more training time than their last deployment, when they only had six months to prepare for the tour of duty in Iraq. It will give the soldiers time to complete the transition started last year to light infantry and train for a different terrain and a new set of missions in Afghanistan.
Ririe, the company commander, said his soldiers would be ready "for whatever mission comes down."
"Of course, it’s going to be a sacrifice for the families again, but we signed up, and we’re ready to go," he said.