COLUMBIA — The entrance of 1,076 members of Missouri’s National Guard into Hearnes Center on Saturday morning was met with thunderous applause from a crowd of supporters giving them a formal send-off to Kosovo.
In June, the guardsmen will be deployed as part of the 10th rotation of the NATO-led Kosovo Force, a peacekeeping mission in the region. The Missouri National Guard expects to complete its mobilization in Kosovo in March 2009, according to a press release.
The guardsmen come from 300 Missouri communities — some as small as Auxvasse, which is sending one soldier, and as large as Kansas City, the home of 76 soldiers.
Twenty-five members of the National Guard from Columbia are going to Kosovo. Fifty will go from Jefferson City, nine from Boonville, five from Fulton, two from Centralia and one from Hallsville.
For Saturday’s departure ceremony, at least half of the arena seats were occupied by 4,000 friends and family members, while the soldiers lined up in straight rows on the floor.
In the stands, veterans stood at attention and saluted as civilians placed their hands over their hearts during the national anthem sung by Lt. Col. Regina Kilmer.
Broadcaster Mike Kelly, the “Voice of the Tigers,” presided over the event and introduced the speakers.
Several state legislators gave words of encouragement, highlighting the dedication, courage and sacrifice the soldiers and their families must give to the mission.
“During my tenure in the United States Congress, as member of the Armed Services Committee, and chairman of the committee, I have witnessed some memorable moments, but none like this,” said U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton, who represents Missouri’s 4th Congressional District.
“I will give the rest of my speech in Kosovo when I visit you,” he said. “And I will visit you.”
Brig. Gen. Larry Kay, Missouri Army National Guard assistant adjutant general, spoke through stifled tears. He said many people take for granted the everyday freedoms instilled by the sacrifices of soldiers.
“There are many people in the United States, and in fact in Missouri, who take for granted the freedoms, the prosperity and the many blessings we have in the United States,” Kay said.
“And they can do that because you don’t take those blessings for granted ... it’s on your shoulders that we may celebrate freedom.”
In light of Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia last month, the Missouri National Guard is sending troops to maintain a smooth transition to peace.
The soldiers will join 16,000 other soldiers with the NATO-led peacekeeping mission.
About 12 percent of Missouri’s 8,600 National Guard soldiers will be deployed with this mission, a magnitude the state hasn’t seen since World War I.
This is the first deployment of the youngest soldier, who is 18.
The oldest, 60, will be assigned to his third.
Lt. Timothy Grenke, 42, the mayor of Centralia, served with the Marine Corps during the Persian Gulf War in Iraq. For the last two weeks, he has been away from his family, training at Camp Clark in Nevada, Mo., for the Kosovo mission.
On Saturday, he was engulfed by hugs from his eight children, aging from a few months to 18 years.
Grenke’s wife, Cheryl Grenke, looked forward to having him home again, if only for a day before he reports back to camp. “I have a few things for him to fix before he leaves,” she said. “I’m not an electrician.”
Cheryl Grenke held her infant baby girl during the speeches, procession of the Color Guard, performances by the 135th Army Band and the symbolic donning of a special patch designed to represent this Kosovo assignment.
First Lt. Erik Seaberg, 26, also had a large family in attendance at the ceremony. It will be his first deployment overseas.
Seaberg had a number of heartfelt moments with the family members who came to see him off.
Betty Sayles, his grandmother, pressed a gold James Madison dollar coin into his palm, saying it was his job to bring it back to her after his stay in Kosovo.
Alongside Seaberg’s family was Susan Lever, his former organic chemistry professor at MU.
She said she came to support him because “he is a great guy and if anybody can keep people safe, it’s Erik.”
Missouri’s National Guard troops began moving to pre-mobilization camps around the state on March 6.
After Saturday’s ceremony, soldiers left to receive additional training before heading to Germany, and finally to Kosovo this summer.