National Guardsmen and their guests ate pulled-pork sandwiches and sipped lemonade at an Auburn park Tuesday.
Kids filled two inflatable playgrounds. Politicians delivered speeches and posed for photos.
And in the final hours before sending off their soldiers for a year, family members chatted about life with their loved ones serving overseas.
"It’s a little scary," said Jenny Anderson, wife of Spc. Randall Anderson. "It’s a little stressful. But it’s kind of exciting at the same time. It’s cool that he’s going to serve his country. The kids consider him their hero."
It is families like the Andersons whom the commander of the 81st Brigade Combat Team calls "the unsung heroes of this deployment."
Similar farewell ceremonies were held at 11 other sites across the state Tuesday, as the 2,500-member brigade embarks today on one last training in Wisconsin before deploying to Iraq. The soldiers already spent 28 days at the Yakima Training Center in July and August.
Randall Anderson took his family on a dinner cruise and a camping trip to make the most of his 10 days of leave. He just wanted to spend time with his wife and three children.
Now comes the difficult part for Anderson, a 33-year-old military policeman from Puyallup.
"I’m not nervous when it comes to doing my job," he said. "I’m just not looking forward to leaving my family behind."
At Tuesday’s event at Game Farm Park in Auburn, Anderson watched his children – ages 4, 2 and 4 months – playing with other kids. He smiled as he soaked up the last few precious hours of quality time with his loved ones.
The ceremony drew about 780 Guardsmen from the Kent Armory — the state’s largest contingent of 81st soldiers — and likely the same number of guests.
It underscored the grassroots nature of the National Guard.
"Never in my life have I ever see an outpouring of support from the community," said Col. Ronald Kapral, the brigade commander, who addressed the crowd.
Gov. Chris Gregoire, Auburn Mayor Pete Lewis and U.S. Reps. Adam Smith and Dave Reichert praised the soldiers, most of whom have deployed before. Other politicians, including Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi, also shook hands and chatted with the Guardsmen.
The brigade began departing for Fort McCoy, Wis., early this morning. Planeloads will ferry the soldiers over the next few days, and all are expected in Wisconsin by Friday or Saturday, Guard spokesman Lt. Keith Kosik said.
The soldiers will continue training in Wisconsin and should be in Kuwait by October. They’ll deploy across northern Iraq shortly after.
"My husband, Mike, served in Vietnam," said Gregoire, who earlier appeared at a similar sendoff in Everett. "He came home to a nation that didn’t exactly put out the welcome mat.
"We all know you have a tough, tough, tough job ahead of you," she said. "We also know it’s dangerous. We’ll be there every day, thinking of you. We’ll be there every day, praying for you. And we’re going to be here to welcome each and every one of you home, safe and secure."
The farewell ceremony was another event in a whirlwind month for the brigade’s newest soldier.
Hunter Ellis joined the National Guard last September. The 19-year-old Olympia resident felt the call of service – his family has a history in the military – and graduated from basic training on July 31.
Still, he wasn’t certain if he would be able to join the brigade in time for its mobilization – until Monday.
"Yesterday was the first day with my unit," he said. "And I’m excited. I want to go and do my job. It’s what I was trained to do."
Others, though, didn’t seem as eager.
Spc. Edward Mears sat atop the hill during the ceremony and silently watched his twin sons play in the grass. Mobilization hasn’t been much to celebrate for his household.
"It’s tough," he said. "It’s tough on me. It’s tough on them. It’s tough on my wife. It’s tough on my daughter. These last 10 days have been like a breeze. They just went so fast."
Mears, a 36-year-old Tacoma resident, served with the 81st Brigade during its first Iraq deployment in 2004-05. This time around is more difficult, he said, because his 4-year-old sons and 2-year-old daughter are old enough to realize their father will be gone.
And the short leave just made it harder on everyone, he said.
"You’ve got 28 days where I’m gone, and then I’m back for 10 days. And they’re like, ‘Where did that come from?’
"It’s harder on them, and it makes it harder for me to say good-bye again."