For many military service members, the toughest aspect of an overseas deployment is leaving family behind for months at a time.
However, when two Georgia National Guardsmen with ties to Effingham County left a few days ago for a year-long tour in Afghanistan, they took family with them — each other.
Both assigned to the 1st Battalion, 214th Field Artillery, Sgt. 1st Class Bruce Pitts and his son Sgt. Zachary Pitts will spend the 12-month deployment together.
“I’ll be able to have a little bit of home with me while we’re gone,” Zach said during a phone interview prior to departing for Afghanistan.
Bruce, who grew up in Effingham County, has made the military his career. He has served 30 years in the National Guard, including full-time for the past two decades.
Zach is following in his father’s footsteps. He lives in Rincon and is in his sixth year with the National Guard after graduating from Effingham County High School in 2007.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I can remember going to drill with him and wanting to be just like my dad,” Zach said. “When I got a chance to do it, I took it.”
While this is Zach’s first deployment, Bruce served 12 months in Iraq in 2005-06. At the time, Zach was a junior at ECHS, Bruce’s daughter Alyx was a freshman and daughter Riley had not been born.
“I told my dad when he went over the last time that he wasn’t going to go without me the second time,” Zach said.
“The first time, it was pretty tough leaving him and Alyx,” Bruce said, “but this time I get to take him with me. I’m still going to miss Alyx and little Riley, but at least I have family with me this time, and I’ll be there to support him.”
He followed with a laugh and said, “I’m probably going to lean on him quite a bit, too.”
Ranie Harper, Zach’s mother and Bruce’s former wife, said she “always knew” Zach would serve in the military, as his father has. At her home in Rincon, she smiled as she looked at photos of Bruce and Zach together at a recent sendoff the 1/214 received in Elberton.
Ranie recalls the homesickness Bruce would express when he telephoned from Iraq. Her voice quivered and she fought back tears as she admitted to feeling conflicted about her son’s deployment.
“As a mother, I’m proud of him. But as a mother, I don’t like it — even if he’s going with his dad,” Ranie said. “But with both of them there, when they get homesick, they’ll have each other to talk to.”
Zach acknowledged he too has mixed feelings about his first deployment, describing it as “nothing that I’ve ever experienced.”
“I’m kind of excited but also I’m scared — the right kind of scared that will keep my mind sharp and I’ll be able to come home safe,” Zach said. “I’m not saying that I want to be away from home, but sometimes it’s good because it’ll just make me grow up to be a better man.”
Bruce and Zach were able to enjoy a visit home prior to their deployment. After several weeks at Camp Shelby, Miss., training for their security force mission in Afghanistan, father and son traveled to Effingham for a weekend with family.
“It’s always good to come home,” Bruce said. “It’s amazing how three days just fly by when you’re having fun. I definitely enjoyed family and getting some decent food for a change, but it’s hard to leave the second time.”
Zach seconded how much the home-cooked meals were appreciated during their visit. He particularly savored the “famous apple crisp” made by “Mema,” his grandmother Velma Nease.
“I loved it,” Zach said. “It’s a gimme that I’m always going to have good food when I get home.”
Bruce had the opportunity to retire from the military in October when he reached 20 full-time years. However, he said he remains committed to serving in the Guard for “as long as I can.”
“I’m gonna make ‘em run me off,” Bruce said. “Plus, with Zach going, I didn’t want him to have to go his first time by himself.”
Though Bruce and Ranie divorced and both remarried, all members of the family remain close. Ranie, Zach and Alyx treat 3-year-old Riley as their own, and Ranie refers to Bruce’s wife Gayle as her “wife-in-law.”
Gayle works long shifts as an emergency medical technician, and Ranie and her husband Scott will help care for Riley while Bruce is deployed. Ranie said she will help Riley make hand-crafted gifts to send to Bruce and Zach, and their plans for the summer including teaching Riley to swim.
“So,” when Bruce returns home, “she can show her daddy she can swim.”