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Long journey about to begin
12.09 graces 2
Private Andrew Grace helps Kaylee Grace, 16 months old, enjoy the Christmas luncheon provided to Alpha Battery soldiers Saturday at First Baptist Church of Springfield. Alpha Battery soldiers, many of whom were in Iraq during a year-long deployment from 2005-06, are training for an upcoming mission in Afghanistan. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

By the time they board the plane that will take them to Afghanistan, the soldiers of Alpha Battery of the 1/118 Field Artillery Battalion will be well-traveled.

The unit, along with the rest of the Georgia Army National Guard’s 48th Brigade, is being mobilized for Operation Enduring Freedom, just two and a half years after the unit’s one-year hitch in Iraq. Before then, they’ll be training at the armory in Springfield and on Fort Stewart. They’ll also head to the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La., and may be headed to Camp Shelby in Mississippi as well.

“But we’re not 100 percent sure about that,” said battery commander 1st Lt. Patrick Grover. “We’ll be traveling around a little bit.”

Before the battery departs for training and ultimately the combat zone, its annual Christmas luncheon was turned into an appreciation dinner by members of the community, who feted the soldiers and their family members and included a visit from Santa.

“This is just a little way of saying, ‘thank you,’” said Lamar Crosby, a retired Army colonel and a member of the board of directors of the Veterans Park, the event sponsor. “We’re very proud of you.”

The effort resonated with the battery’s soldiers and its commander.

“It shows how much they respect us and how much they care about freedom,” said Pfc. Zachary Pitts. “It shows how much they care about us.”

More than half the unit, which is just 100 strong, is from Effingham and those local roots help the community identify with the battery, according to Grover. Grover took command of the battery in September and during his time as an enlisted man, he was with the 1/75 Ranger Battalion for four years. His predecessor as Alpha Battery commander let him know how the community embraces the unit.

“It’s amazing to me that we can get a community to come behind us so greatly,” he said. “Going out to lunch once in a while, people buy you lunch for no reason, and you don’t know who it is. It always overwhelms me when I see people’s kindness.”

The event also allowed the soldiers to spend a little more time with their families — and for the families to spend with other soldiers’ families.

“It’s a good way to meet all the wives and for them to meet each other,” said Spec. Dale Richey. “That way, if anyone needs anything, the wives can go back and forth.”

Meanwhile, the battery’s mission is changing. They’ve given up the self-propelled howitzers, the massive M109 Paladins, for the smaller and lighter 105mm howitzers. The new guns are towed, unlike the Paladins, which carry a 155mm howitzer.

And yet, the battery may not even fire a single shot from their new weapons once they’re in Afghanistan. Their duty could range from force protection to convoys to training the Afghani security forces. They’ll also spend a lot of time on individual weapons training and on small-unit tactics, right down to the platoon and squad levels.

Much of the unit remains from the Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment, evidenced by the wide variety of unit combat patches on their right arms.

“I hope everything goes well and hope everyone makes it back home,” said Richey, who was assigned to the 1st Armored Division during the battery’s Iraq mission.