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Emotional send-off: Family, other loved ones cheer on Wisconsin Army National Guard troops as they leave for Afghanistan

Lambeau Field sendoff for Afghanistan-bound Wisconsin Guard Soldiers (Staff Sgt. Matthew Ard/Wisconsin National Guard)

A mix of emotions filled the decidedly warm air on Sunday at UW-Stout’s Johnson Fieldhouse.

A bit of excitement could be felt as the nearly 400 Wisconsin Army National Guard soldiers, from the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, gathered to be deployed to Afghanistan for up to a year. That was appropriate, as the personnel were doing what they have trained for: bravely serving their country in a military capacity.

The Eau Claire-headquartered 128th and its subordinate companies are all part of the 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Brigade Combat Team. They are deploying as a security element for coalition forces operating in the region.

A crowd of all ages shared in that spirit as well, to judge by the boisterous cheering and applause during the send-off ceremony in the standing room only hall.

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But most in attendance likely felt an understandable bit of anxiety as well.

Nichole Burke, who was there with her husband, Sgt. Logan Burke, as well as daughters Ireland, 8, and Olive, 4, summed up her emotions.

“I’m proud of him,” the Altoona resident said. “I hate that he has to leave, but I know he loves what he does.”

Logan Burke is serving his third deployment to Afghanistan as a member of Company C, based in Arcadia with a detachment in Onalaska. He acknowledged the difficulty of separation from his family but said joining the military had been a longtime goal.

“It’s something I wanted to do since I was a little kid,” he said. “This is my calling.”

As for how to help deal with that separation, Logan Burke advised, “Communication is the No. 1 key.”

The wife of another departing soldier emphasized the same point. Jasmine Linden of Horicon was there with Pvt. Luke Linden, a member of the Menomonie-based Company A.

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Asked how she and Luke Linden would try to make the best of his deployment, Jasmine Linden replied: “Phone calls, video chats, letters.”

Like Logan Burke, Luke Linden said he also has aspired to serve in the armed forces “since I was a little kid.” As such, he said he “feels pretty good” about the upcoming mission.

“It’s kind of what I signed up for,” he said.

Other companies that make up the 128th include Company B, headquartered in New Richmond with a detachment in Rice Lake; Company D in River Falls; and the battalion headquarters in Eau Claire with a headquarters detachment in Abbotsford.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers was among the military and civilian officials encouraging the soldiers on their way to Afghanistan.

“As your commander in chief I’d just like to say I’m grateful to you and your families for your service to Wisconsin and the nation,” Evers said. “Your service, courage and sacrifice helps ensure liberties and freedoms we enjoy as Americans. And it’s you that helps ensure that these freedoms are passed on to the next generation.”

Evers injected a bit of Badger State pride in his remarks.

“You are the very best the state has to offer,” he said. “You are well-trained, but you also embody the values inherent in a Wisconsin upbringing … and you represent the state when you wear the red arrow on your shoulder.”

Specifically, Evers cited the values of selflessness, hard work and dedication these soldiers embody.

“That’s why the Army looks to Wisconsin when they need to call on the National Guard,” he said. “They know they’re getting the best of the best when they call on Wisconsin.”

Along with other speakers, Evers acknowledged the oft-cited three-legged stool that supports the National Guard: community, family and employers.

Speaking of families, he noted, “We pledge our support to you as well. You bear an incredible amount of the burden when your soldier is deployed and we are obviously grateful for all that you do.”

Other speakers at the send-off included Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, adjutant general and commander of the Wisconsin National Guard; Brig. Gen. Joni Mathews, Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general for the Wisconsin Army National Guard; Command Sgt. Maj. Rafael Conde, Wisconsin Army National Guard state command sergeant major; Lt. Col. Douglas Hedman, state chaplain for the Wisconsin Army National Guard; and 3rd District congressman Ron Kind, D-La Crosse.

Several kept their remarks brief, they said, because of the sweltering conditions inside Johnson Fieldhouse.

At the end of the ceremony, Evers presented the 128th with the Wisconsin state flag to officers of the 128th.

The ovation that gesture prompted, as well as many other moments during the occasion, helped suggest another emotion that seemed to be in abundance among the soldiers, their leaders and so many others in the crowd: justifiable pride.

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© 2019 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)