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These local soldiers are headed to Afghanistan. You can help with the send-off.
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Members of Charlie Company set off on a two-mile run Tuesday Nov. 20, 2018, at the Gainesville high track during early morning physical training. Charlie Company, a Gainesville-based Georgia Army National Guard unit, is about to deploy to Afghanistan, the first time the soldiers have been sent on a mission in nearly a decade. - photo by Scott Rogers

For those thinking Afghanistan is off the U.S. radar, Gainesville-based Charlie Company’s commander has a simple message.

“We’re still there,” said Capt. John Whitmire, a Flowery Branch native.

And Charlie Company, 1-121 Army National Guard unit with the 48th Brigade, based at 153 Alta Vista Road, will be there next year — its first deployment to the country since 2009-10.

Soldiers will be leaving Gainesville on Monday, Nov. 26, for Fort Stewart near Savannah to complete training for deployment. Loved ones and supporters are planning a send-off at 10 a.m. along Alta Vista Road at John W. Morrow Jr. Parkway.

The unit will spend about a year as part of an effort to improve the Afghan army.

U.S. forces have been involved in Afghanistan since 2001 — or after 9/11 — in what has become America’s longest war. Withdrawals in recent years have reduced America’s presence to about 14,000 troops

As the Afghans take over militarily, “we’re taking a step back,” Whitmire said. “We’re doing advising, primarily. We’re handing over the reins and giving them the ability (to operate) on their own.”

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Charlie Company commander John Luke Whitmire talks about the upcoming deployment to Afghanistan Monday, Nov. 19, 2018 at the armory on Alta Vista Road. It's the first time the soldiers have been sent on a mission in nearly a decade. - photo by Scott Rogers

Charlie Company soldiers have stickers sporting the unit’s motto they plan to hand out to Afghan soldiers.

“They really like stuff like this,” Whitmire said. “They like to be associated with whoever is training and equipping them. They want to be like us. Their army wants to model what we do.”

The unit’s mission is part of a larger pilot partnership between the regular Army and National Guard and Reserve units in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The Associated Units program “will establish formal relationships between the reserve and active components, allowing units to train and eventually deploy together,” according to a 2016 Stars and Stripes report.

“The active Army is set to shrink to 450,000 soldiers by the end of next year, yet demands for soldiers around the world continue to rise.”

“This past year, we did a lot of pre-mobilization training,” Whitmire said.

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Molly Nigro and husband Sgt.1st Class Nick Nigro talk, Monday, Nov. 19, 2018, about his deployment, his first since the couple have had a child. - photo by Scott Rogers

“The whole (reason for) the program was because active duty was slowing down and getting a bit smaller,” he said. “And now the National Guard is filling in that gap, so we’re supposed to be able to deploy just as quickly as them and maintain all the same training requirements and readiness level.”

The National Guard “is a unique element of the U.S. military that serves both community and country,” according to its website. Soldiers “respond to domestic emergencies, overseas combat missions, counterdrug efforts, reconstruction missions and more.”

Many of the members hold civilian jobs or attend college while maintaining their military training part-time.

Charlie Company’s Family Readiness Group is planning the send-off.

“We wanted to give them a proper goodbye, even though they didn’t want it, especially because I don’t think the community really knows this (deployment) is happening,” said Molly Nigro, whose husband is Sgt. 1st Class Nick Nigro.

“We’re just asking the community to come out and support (the soldiers), just wave goodbye to them as they head off,” she said.

Looking ahead to the homecoming, “we really want to do the back end big,” Whitmire said.

But as for the send-off, “I guess the community does need to see … we’re still here.”

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Molly Nigro holds up a new shirt with a Cherokee Company logo Monday, Nov. 19, 2018, at the Georgia Army National Guard armory. Nigro, along with Brandi Gormley, left, and Kelly Pruitt were at the armory helping set up lunch for the soldiers. - photo by Scott Rogers

Nick Nigro went to Iraq as part of Charlie Company’s deployment there in 2005, then to Afghanistan. This will be his third deployment to the region.

Nick and Molly had just started dating during his first Afghanistan deployment.

“This is our first deployment with kids,” Molly said. “I’m very blessed in that we live near my family. We live on family property. My mom’s next door, my grandmother’s behind us.”

This deployment will be tough on Nick, as well.

“The last two deployments, it was like I need to do the job I signed up to do,” he said. “I still want to do the same thing (this deployment), and I have guys I’m responsible for. I want to be there and take care of them just like they are family.”

Charlie Company

What: Send-off for Army National Guard unit for final training at Fort Stewart, then eventual deployment to Afghanistan

When: 10 a.m. Monday

Where: 153 Alta Vista Road

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Sgt. Luis Olalde performs sit-ups during Charlie Company physical training meet Tuesday Nov. 20, 2018, at the Gainesville High track. Olalde is assisted by Sgt. Jaime Casi as Sgt.. John Barrett, standing, keeps count of the reps. Charlie Company, a Gainesville-based Georgia Army National Guard unit, is about to deploy to Afghanistan, the first time the soldiers have been sent on a mission in nearly a decade. - photo by Scott Rogers
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A sticker Charlie Company soldiers plan to hand out to Afghan soldiers sports the unit’s motto. - photo by Scott Rogers