Holiday cheer was tinged with sadness as members of the Georgia Army National Guard’s Charlie Company gathered for a Christmas party Sunday afternoon.
This time next year, the citizen-soldiers will be in Afghanistan.
"You just have to have faith that everything will be OK," said Deborah Belden, who watched as her 6-year-old grandson, Gabriel Coleman, went through toys filling a Christmas package he had received.
"You just got to believe that they’re going to do their job and come back home safely," added Belden, whose son-in-law, Charles Coleman, is a member of the company, which is part of the 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment, 48th Brigade.
She and her family, along with some 240 other members of the company and their families, were treated to food and gifts for the children — as well as an appearance by Santa Claus — in a party sponsored by Operation Patriot’s Call at Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville.
Patriot’s Call is made up of several Vietnam veterans and community members who are dedicated to helping families of soldiers before, during and after overseas deployments.
Charlie Company last was deployed to Iraq in May 2005 and returned stateside in April 2006, every man accounted for.
The company’s commander, Capt. Jeffrey Moran, said he expects the group to be deployed for one year, starting in the spring.
"We are projected to go to the southern portion of Afghanistan," he said. "We will be mentors to the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. ... We’ll mentor (them) and go alongside them on patrols and do our best to train up their forces so our forces can come home."
Moran believes that, while gone, soldiers’ families will be in good hands back home.
"I couldn’t ask for a better group of committed individuals throughout the community," he said. "Gainesville has been great. ... The Gainesville area supported us 100 percent in our last deployment and they’ve gone a step up prior to this deployment.
"If we have one of our soldiers ... or sergeants worrying about something that’s going on back home, he’s not focused on the mission at hand. If we eliminate those distractions, it increases our survivability overseas."
Ron Kellner, who helped coordinate the Christmas party as a member of Patriot’s Call, said the community has done well in the past at welcoming the group back from missions.
"But we haven’t done a whole lot with their families or taking care of them while they’re overseas," he said.
Kellner said the Vietnam veterans’ interest in Patriot’s Call — he’s a vet himself — is that "we know what the needs are for the families when you go overseas and that support wasn’t there when we went."
The soldiers said they were feeling appreciated Sunday.
"This is great," said Specialist Andy Corbin. "(The event) focuses on the family and getting the families involved with the troops. ... It’s great for the kids. They got gifts and they loved it."
Corbin of Watkinsville was at the party with his wife, Sandy, and their two children, 6-year-old Luke and 10-year-old Isabella.
The children reveled in receiving a host of toys, including teddy bears, coloring books and toy cars.
Isabella said she especially enjoyed the food, but also "I liked meeting Santa."