Tears, hugs and the rumble of motorcycles set the mood Sunday morning as members of the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment were treated to a send off by family, friends and dignitaries at the National Guard Armory.
Three motorcycle organizations and emergency services personnel then escorted the soldiers through downtown and back to the Loudon County line as they went on to Camp Shelby in Mississippi to train for deployment in Iraq in February.
Joan Bennett, president of the Family Readiness Group for the Howitzer Battery, 1st Squadron of the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Maryville, said the 8:30 a.m. ceremony Sunday was a wonderful send off. “All the soldiers were shown how much the community appreciated their service and what they’re getting ready to do. We had the escorts - that was really nice with the parade through town,” she said.
Bennett thanked Alcoa High School student and former American Idol contestant Jackie Midkiff for singing “American Soldier,” County Mayor Jerry Cunningham for serving as master of ceremonies and members of three motorcycle groups – Patriot Riders, Dixie Iron Riders and The Dragon Chapter of Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson for escorting the personnel through town. “It was phenomenal, the motorcycles took them all the way to Lenoir City,” she said. “The community really showed the soldiers and their families all their support.”
Boy Scout Troop 81 presented the flag and led the group in the Pledge of Allegiance. City of Maryville Mayor Tom Taylor, Alcoa City Manager Mark Johnson and Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham recognized the unit with a joint proclamation from the three governments. State Senator Doug Overbey presented the group a Tennessee state flag to take with them and retired 278th Chaplain Pastor Richard Blackburn gave the closing invocation.
MSgt. Ron McLemore with the 278th said the event went well despite plenty of tears from soldiers and their loved ones. “It was great, it was fantastic,” he said of the send off.
Cunningham shared his thoughts with the soldiers about the threats America faces at home and abroad. “They stepped forward just the same as our ancestors did at Kings Mountain, Gettysburg, Normandy and Iwo Jima. They stand guard so we can congregate, go to church and educate our children,” the mayor said.
Cunningham recalled 40 years ago when he stood in formation like the members of the 278th were on Sunday morning. “We were receiving our orders and my orders said Vietnam. I remember the feeling and I’m sure it’s the same for them – pride, anxiety and apprehension knowing how lonely a tour it would be,” he said.
Seeing the community turn out to support the 278th was important for departing soldiers. “The community, the way they turned out was awesome,” he said. “It means everything when going into harm’s way that folks back home are holding the rope as you go down into the well.”
City of Maryville Mayor Tom Taylor said it is sometimes hard to comprehend how far away the soldiers are going. “Even when they’re at a distance like that, they remain in our thoughts and prayers every minute of every hour of every day and we are literally counting the minutes until we make new banners that say ‘Welcome Home 278th,’” he said.
Taylor said he grew up in a Guard family and understands the sacrifice families make when their loved ones must leave to serve. Sunday’s send off was more traumatic than Taylor initially thought it would be. “It was just heartbreaking to see those families have to tell sons and daughters, moms and dads goodbye,” he said. “It was hard on all of us down there. I grew up in a Guard family so I have a real appreciation for what they go through trying to balance jobs and families and everything and still be giving so much.”
Overbey said the men and women in uniform make innumerable sacrifices to stay prepared and to be ready to deploy when called upon. “The sacrifice is not only theirs, but their families and loved ones who see them off. For me just to be there and see that these men and women are ready to go and are willing to serve when called upon is awe-inspiring,” he said. “If that doesn’t kindle patriotic feeling and love for your country then nothing will.”
Johnson said the send off was special. “It was a moving event. It was well done and it was upbeat but at the same time we know these young men and women are going to defend our country’s freedoms and values,” he said. “When you think about what we hold as extreme important, these folks are willing to step up and defend that.”
The 278th is the state’s largest combat unit and is comprised of more than 3,300 soldiers hailing from armories in Kingsport to Henderson in West Tennessee. All of the various armories across the state will be saying goodbye to their men and women at about the same time. The regiment was last deployed in 2004 and 2005 and stationed in Iraq’s Diyala province and others stationed in Kirkuk and Baghdad.