CAMBRIDGE -- The men of C Company, First Battalion of the 181st Infantry Regiment of the Massachusetts National Guard were getting ready to go to war. Some loaded plastic crates filled with their gear and books onto the back of a large truck. Some had taken off their camouflage shirts and played basketball inside the spacious Cambridge Armory while comrades watched. Others had stepped outside to call friends and family.
As popular support for the war in Iraq has reached its lowest point, 88 National Guardsmen from the Cambridge-based unit, one of the oldest and most famed regiments in the country, are preparing to deploy to Iraq tomorrow. Although some of the soldiers have been to Iraq before with other units, it is the first time C Company is going to Iraq as a whole.
"There's a lot of stuff going on over there, and they don't have enough regular soldiers, so we're going," said First Sergeant Andrew Couture, 33, a Pittsfield native who is leaving behind a wife and 15-month-old son.
The historic unit, which Paul Revere led against British forces on Lexington Green and in Concord in 1775 and which fought in World Wars I and II and in Bosnia, will attend a noontime farewell ceremony at Cambridge Common tomorrow and then depart for training at Camp Shelby, Miss. From there, the men will fly to Kuwait and then to Iraq, where they expect to spend a year providing security for US military units and civilian convoys delivering supplies to American troops.
Lieutenant Kyle Moore, 29, of Medfield, said he was excited to go.
"The political part of it isn't really my concern," said Moore, who is deploying to Iraq for the first time.
Some guardsmen, such as Sergeant Jeff Axton of South Hadley, know firsthand the dangers of deployment.
On his right wrist, Hadley wears a pewter bracelet engraved with the name of his friend, Gunnery Sergeant Darrell W. Boatman, killed by a roadside bomb in Habbaniya, a town in volatile western Anbar Province, during Axton's previous tour in Iraq in 2005.
Despite the violence and the lack of support for the war at home, Axton said he was looking forward to the deployment. He was accepted in April to the University of Massachusetts to study to become an elementary school science teacher, but he chose to postpone his studies to follow his unit to Iraq.
"Everybody needs to be supportive of what we're doing over there," he said. "I'm glad to be doing it again."
Sergeant Fabio Falorni, 38, was more apprehensive.
"It's tough being married and getting deployed," said Falorni, a sprinkler fitter from Methuen who is leaving behind three teenage children and a wife.
"But if I wouldn't do it, my kids will have to do it in 10 years," he said. "I don't want my kids to have to go to war."
The company's members have not been told where in Iraq they will be stationed, nor exactly when they will return.
Couture, a former National Guard recruiter, said he was prepared for the long separation.
"Since post-9/11, those deployments, being away from family, it's really part of the job," he said.