As the nation debates whether to enter another overseas conflict, Illinois' citizen soldiers gathered Tuesday for a somber reminder of the country's slow, complicated withdrawal from a war it's already in.
A small contingent of Illinois National Guard soldiers from across the state was given an official send-off at the Bloomington armory for a mission to Afghanistan. It could be the last deployment of Illinois troops for a mission that began shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and at one point involved thousands of men and women.
The event unfolded just hours before President Barack Obama planned to address the nation about Syria. The speech originally was scheduled to make a case for limited military strikes against a regime the administration says unleashed chemical weapons on more than 1,000 of the Mideast country's own citizens. On Tuesday, the White House was exploring diplomatic options for resolving the crisis.
While the 16 guardsmen said they were focused on the specific mission ahead, the timing of the ceremony was not lost on community leaders and some of the soldiers' own families.
"Especially when we're teetering on another conflict, this is a sober reminder to all of us," said Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner, noting the state's pride over participating in the Afghan deployment. "It's a reminder that while (U.S. involvement in) the conflict seems to be winding down, we're not out of there yet."
Illinois Army National Guard Col. Joe Barker said he was bracing to again leave behind his wife, four grown kids and a high school teaching job for his second and likely last mission in Afghanistan.
"I'm focused on where I'm going, and I'm glad I'm not in on the (Syria) decision," said Barker, 51, of La Grange, a suburb west of Chicago.
Barker's daughter, Maureen, said she was following her father's advice: Forget about Syria.
"He won't be involved with any of the (Syria) stuff that is getting the attention, so we're just excited for him to go and get back," she told The (Bloomington) Pantagraph while attending Tuesday's send-off with about 200 other people.
Illinois National Guard spokesman Mike Chrisman says the small contingent will be doing what the Guard has done for two decades: Pairing with Polish troops on overseas assignments and deploying on a rotating basis every six to eight months. The latest deployment, Chrisman says, "likely will be one of the last going into Afghanistan."
The special Guard team will train for roughly two months in New Jersey and in Poland before spending six months in Afghanistan. It is assigned to advise the Polish brigade on military practices and assist with administration, planning, operations and logistics.
For Barker, a math and science teacher at Lyons Township High School in La Grange, the mission will be his second since 2010. Even with the U.S. winding down its role in Afghanistan, Barker says he accepts the possible peril he faces.
"We have to do everything we can to mitigate any risk we have" in Afghanistan, where they'll face the threat of roadside bombs and snipers, said Barker, an Illinois National Guard member since 1994. "It's all about understanding the environment and training as best as we can. ... Is anything guaranteed? Probably not."
Capt. Jeremy Dugena of Batavia told the Pantagraph that the most difficult thing to prepare for was leaving his five-month-old daughter, Nora and his wife, Jessica.
"That's something you can't train for," he said. "But I'm ready to get started and will be anxious to get back."
The soldiers' family members said the deployment has led them to focus more on world events in recent weeks, including the escalating conflict with Syria.
Public opinion polls show widespread opposition to Obama's initial lobbying of Congress to authorize the use of U.S. military force against Syria, and the U.S. getting involved in yet another foreign entanglement. And federal lawmakers remained deeply divided, reflecting public reticence after a dozen years of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Renner, the Bloomington mayor, said he understood the resistance to getting involved in yet another conflict, even if he didn't agree with it.
"If you have 60 or 70 percent of constituents who don't want it, (federal lawmakers) aren't going to vote for it," Renner told The Associated Press. "In this circumstance, I would do it for the moral leadership. As we move forward, the world's not going to be a safer place. We have to make it clear that if you're going to act like a tyrant, that's not OK."