June 13, 2007

Virginia Guard family feels call to war

By Louis Hansen
Courtesy of The Virginian-Pilot

Anita Freeman hugs son Travis on Sunday morning as her older son prepares to deploy to Camp Shelby, Miss., and then to the Middle East. (Photo courtesy of Stephen M. Katz Photos, The Virginian-Pilot)

PORTSMOUTH, Va. – While hundreds of uniformed soldiers and family filled the waterfront amphitheater here Sunday morning, Anita Freeman stood alone with her thoughts and a single red rose.

A few feet away, her older son, Staff Sgt. Travis Freeman, cradled his 3-month-old daughter. Her younger son, Pfc. Brice Freeman, clutched his new fiancee. The man she would normally wrap her arms around - Staff Sgt. Ron Freeman, her husband of 29 years - was 750 miles away at another Army base. After three decades of relative peace and security, the Virginia Army National Guard has brought the Freeman family uncertainty. All three men have been called to war.

"I was shocked," Anita said, recalling when she first learned that all three men would be gone at the same time. "I didn't know what to feel."

On Sunday morning, nearly 450 National Guard soldiers from 2nd Squadron 183rd Cavalry deployed, leaving friends and family behind for at least a year. The Portsmouth-based unit will train at Camp Shelby in Mississippi for three months and then deploy to Kuwait and Iraq.

Travis and Brice Freeman hugged their mother one last time. They both whispered to her, "I love you."

Then her only children joined their units in formation.

The war has leaned heavily on National Guard families like the Freemans.

Ron is a full-time mechanic with the National Guard, Travis is a Virginia Beach police officer, and Brice is a construction worker.

Despite a famous World War II incident where five brothers from the Sullivan family were killed when their ship was torpedoed, the military still allows family members to deploy together during combat.
 

Brothers Brice, left, and Travis Freeman make last-minute preparations last week to ship out with their Virginia Army National Guard units. (Photo courtesy of Stephen M. Katz Photos, The Virginian-Pilot)

 

The military does allow a sole surviving son or daughter to transfer to noncombat duty, if requested, Defense Department spokesman Maj. Stewart Upton said in an e-mail.

One night, shortly after Ron learned he would be deploying for the first time in his 30-year career, the Freeman family gathered in the living room.

They considered requesting a delay in one of their deployments. They tried to convince each other to stay home. No one budged.

"How would you make a decision on which one doesn't go?" Ron Freeman asked, talking by cell phone Saturday night from Camp Atterbury in Indiana. "I love both of my sons."

They stopped arguing and agreed to go. It will be the first deployment and overseas trip for all three men.

The father was assigned to a unit based in Roanoke; he departed first. Ron Freeman has been told he will lead a convoy unit and drive tractor- trailers between Kuwait and Iraq.

"I'm not really happy with all of us going over at the same time," the father said, "but I really don't have much say in it."

Freeman said he did not encourage his sons to join the Guard, but he's proud they have decided to serve.

Travis Freeman, 27, bounced between jobs after graduating from Great Bridge High School. "I didn't know what I wanted to do," Travis said.

Joining the National Guard nine years ago helped give him focus. Soon he became a police officer in Virginia Beach and married his wife, Heather.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the couple expected Travis to deploy. Still, they made plans to start a family. "You can't plan your life around deployments," Heather said.

Their first child, Hannah, was born in March.

Her dad will be gone for a year.

Heather's family and friends will help watch the baby, keep the new mother company and help manage any emergencies. "I'm nervous, but I try to keep a positive outlook," she said. "We'll do what we have to do."

Travis, a cavalry soldier, will be stationed in Kuwait. He will lead a 12-man team scouting and escorting convoys through the two countries.

He downplays the danger, saying the family understood the responsibility that comes with joining the military. "I'm sure we're not the first, and I'm sure we won't be the last," he said.

Brice, 24, enlisted in the Guard last year and became a mechanic, like his father. He will fix Humvees and other ground vehicles at a base in Kuwait. "I expect it to be hot, and I know it will be stressful," he said.

His life has been thrown into high gear since he received his orders.

A few weeks ago at the Oceanfront, he dropped to his knee and proposed to his girlfriend, Shannon Gleason. The couple plan to marry in September 2008.

"This is making them think a lot about what's important in life," said Randy Gleason, Shannon's father. Including, he said, "their own mortality."

Last week, Anita Freeman pulled out a thick white photo album left untended for years. It was stuffed with black-and-white photos of her father in a Navy uniform shortly after World War II.

The coming deployments made her look back into her family history. "This is all my fault," she said through a nervous laugh.

Anita sees the deployment as a mixture of opportunity and fear.

The extra income from her husband's active-duty job will allow her to enroll in college. She would like to become a teacher's assistant.

Yet since her husband left in mid-May, she's discovered the difficulties of single living. The check-engine light blinked in the car, the vacuum cleaner broke, and the family's ancient black L abrador retriever has grown weaker.

She has tried to stay supportive but has been losing sleep. "It's been a roller coaster," she said.

On Saturday, she was unsure whether she could bear to attend the send-off ceremony.

A friend finally convinced her to go.

Heather Freeman, center, watches as her husband, Travis, lines up for his unit’s deployment ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Stephen M. Katz Photos, The Virginian-Pilot)

"I want this to be over as soon as possible," Anita said. "I'm tired of saying goodbye."

The cavalry packed its final bags early Sunday morning.

The squadron spent the past week at Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach, drilling and training together as a complete unit for the first time.

About half the men come from locally based units. An equal percentage have seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. They expect to spend one year in federal service before returning home.

Travis' Virginia Beach police squad escorted the soldiers from Camp Pendleton to the ceremony.

About two dozen family members and friends gathered at nTelos Pavilion in downtown Portsmouth to say goodbye to the Freemans.

The soldiers sat in front of the stage, separated from their families by several empty rows.

In the middle of one speech, Anita's phone rang. She cupped it close to her mouth. It was her husband.

She nodded and whispered a few words. "I love you," she said into the phone.

Moments later, the family stood. They alternated yelling "Travis!" and "Brice!"

The soldiers moved in single file, a green camouflage stream flowing away from the families and toward a cluster of waiting buses.

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