MENOMONIE - A stifling hot Johnson Fieldhouse was stuffed to the rafters Sunday afternoon at the University of Wisconsin-Stout as family and friends prepared to send off the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry on a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom Sentinel.
Seven chairs and a podium sat on a simple stage from which a procession of military officials would address the soldiers and their families. The 132nd Army Band played "The Star-Spangled Banner" followed by hundreds of people reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with an unmistakable sincerity.
The 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry owns a distinguished history of service as part of the 32nd Infantry Brigade, famously known as the Red Arrow Division. With roots in the American Civil War, the volunteer infantry from Wisconsin began earning its reputation for ferocity and courage in battles at Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg. Today the battalion's flag is decorated with battle streamers commemorating more than a century of decorated service.
"Soldiers write the checks, but families pay the bills," said Battalion commander Lt. Col. Aaron Fruend, "For soldiers, they do not fight because they hate what is in front of them, they fight because of what they left behind."
Fruend reminded the audience what lies at the core of being a soldier, especially as a member of the Eagle Brigade: "We are always ready. When our nation asks, 'Who will go?' We continue to stand up and say, 'Send me. I will go."
Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, adjutant general of Wisconsin said, "I met families whose soldiers deployed for the first time, about seven out of 10 out there. Some have deployed twice, three, four times and you can see the pride in their eyes. I want to assure each and every one of you, that these soldiers are ready. This command team and our U.S. Army have made sure they've gotten and will get the best training possible, or we wouldn't send them They are the best at what they do."
Successive speakers thanked the men and women, their families, their communities and their employers.
"Eight, nine out of 10 of these soldiers here today are not full time in uniform. They are full time in their community and this is a full-time passon, but it's not what they do all the time. Professional soldiers to be sure, but they work in our communities. We have law enforcement, fire fighters, medical personnel, technician plumbers, electrician lawyers, and all through out this year as they are deployed others will pick up the slack in those companies. These companies have skin in the game too and they are proud of these soldiers," Dunbar added.
Gov. Tony Evers put the day into perspective.
"Today is an exciting day it's also a sombre day. Exciting that you are ready to go forth and complete the mission for which you have trained. But it's also a difficult day as you bid farewell to family and the comforts of home. As your commander and chief I just want to say that I am so grateful to you and your families for your service to Wisconsin and our nation. It is your service and sacrifice that helps insure freedom and liberties that we enjoy as Americans," Evers said.
On the lawns surrounding Johnson Fieldhouse after the rally, cameras clicked and phones recorded images of family members arm in arm, cheek to cheek, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, girlfriends and boyfriends, husbands and wives, but maybe the most poignant images were those of fathers and mothers in fatigues hoisting and hugging their children.
The 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry is based in Eau Claire and includes companies from Menomonie, New Richmond, Rice Lake, Arcadia, Onalaska, River Falls and Abbotsford.