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Iowa National Guard soldiers leave for biggest deployment since WWII

By Stephanie Himango, NBC News Producer

DES MOINES, IOWA – Have you ever stopped to think about citizen-soldiers? About who they are?

National Guard soldiers are people like you, your sister, your neighbor, your mom or your dad. They read books, go to ballgames, care for their parents, worry about their children. They have lives, jobs and commitments that non-military people can relate to.

That is, until they are called up on federal orders to serve in places like Afghanistan.

Stephanie Himango/ NBC News

An Iowa National Guard soldier hugs a little girl during a sendoff ceremony in Ankeny, Iowa on Aug. 5.

Then their lives become anything but ordinary. Some soldiers trade tractors for M-4 rifles, business suits for camouflage, sandals for combat boots.

Citizen-soldiers are a significant part of the 1 percent of the United States population serving in the military.

For at least a year, a group of Iowa National Guard soldiers are leaving everything familiar in order to serve. But dates for deployment and return are not finite moments when all of their responsibilities begin and end. For months before and after their deployment, they have family dynamics to manage, work-related issues to navigate, relationships to maintain.

As of Monday, nearly 3,000 Iowa Army National Guard soldiers officially left home for what will be a one-year deployment to Afghanistan, making it the largest deployment of the Iowa National Guard since World War II.

The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division comprises 2,800 soldiers from Iowa, about 350 from the Nebraska Guard, and about 100 from other states. The brigade will continue their training in Mississippi and California before leaving for Afghanistan in October. But for the families back home, they have said their tearful goodbyes for a year.

Stephanie Himango/ NBC News

A group of Iowa National Guard soldiers salute during a sendoff ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa on Monday, Aug. 9.

Ripple effect of deployment
With a state population of about 3 million, the deployment will have a significant impact on the residents of Iowa. These citizen-soldiers will be absent for a full year from their roles as teachers, medics, firefighters, community leaders – not to mention their altered roles as fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters.

One person who can grasp the magnitude of this deployment is Brig. Gen. Timothy E. Orr, Adjutant General, Iowa National Guard.

"When we deploy a battalion, we touch anywhere from 270 to 290 communities. This brigade will deploy, and they will cover almost every community in the state of Iowa," Orr said, the top commander for Iowa's National Guard.

"We call this Fort Iowa," he added, explaining that everyone has an important role to play. The will behind this fight, he said, includes the men and women back home, the families, the employers and the communities.

Stephanie Himango/ NBC News

A young girl says goodbye to a soldier in Des Moines, Iowa on Monday, Aug. 9.

Next greatest generation
Orr's impression of the soldiers themselves is measured in familiar and reverent terms.

"I think when you look at this generation, it's the next 'Greatest Generation,'" he said, referring to the men and women who fought World War II.

"The men and women we have today are volunteers. We've been at war for over eight years and yet every day we continue to get more and more men and women who want to serve."

He pointed out that the National Guard soldiers are one part of the U.S. population that serves in the military. Referring to the collective military effort, he said "they're carrying 100 percent of the load on this global war on terrorism ... and in my book that makes them very special. They don't have to be here," he said. "I think they're role models for society and for young people today."

Related article: For soldiers, training mirrors Afghanistan's realities


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See more reports on the deployment of the Iowa National Guard on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams this week.