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Tears, Fanfare as Troops Depart

Wives write love letters and at least one soldier has second thoughts as California Guardsmen head for duty in Iraq.

March 14, 2004|Rone Tempest and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

FT. IRWIN, Calif. — Not even the harsh desert sun could dry the tears of sadness and pride on Saturday as hundreds of families bid adieu to the largest contingent of overseas-bound California National Guard soldiers since the Korean War.

"I'm extremely proud of my son because he believes in what he is doing," said Nancy Navarro, mother of Spc. Nicholas Navarro, 24, of Victorville, "but for his mother's heart, it's tough. I'm praying for him."

Also saying goodbye to the young soldier, who worked in a skateboard-shoe shop before being called up, were two sisters; his wife, Rhiannon, 25; and 10-month-old daughter, Makenna.

More than 2,500 troops from the National Guard 81st Separate Armor Brigade, including 900 from California, depart, beginning today, for a one-year assignment in Iraq, where they are to replace regular Army forces. By the end of May, Pentagon officials say, nearly half of the 110,000 U.S. troops in Iraq will be National Guard or reserve personnel.

It is the first time since Korea that the Guard and reserves have played such a major overseas role. California, where polls show citizens to be among the least supportive of the Iraq war effort, is sending more Guard and reserve troops than any other state.

The largest California Guard unit is the 1st Battalion, 185th Armor Regiment headquartered in San Bernardino, which is sending 612 soldiers to Iraq. Most of the other California soldiers assembled on the tarmac of the Ft. Irwin helicopter base were from the 160th Mechanized Infantry Battalion from Riverside and the 579th Engineers from Manhattan Beach.

As the military band played martial tunes, four wives of men in the 160th huddled in the grandstands in an impromptu support group. While they waited for the ceremony to start, each of the four wrote a love letter for her husband to read on the way to Iraq.

In her letter to Staff Sgt. Kevin Phillips, Colleen Phillips wrote: "You are everything to me and I wanted to tell you how very proud I am. I could not be luckier to have a man who is so brave and so sensitive." She signed the letter with the couple's traditional salutation: "noses, hearts and never-ending moonbeams." In civilian life, Sgt. Phillips, 42, is a Long Beach park policeman. Colleen Phillips is a registered dental assistant. They have four children, ages 17, 15, 9 and 6. They live in Lakewood.

The California "citizen soldiers" in the National Guard leave behind civilian jobs ranging from schoolteacher to prison guard. They arrived this weekend by bus from Southern California armories, in minivans jammed with kids and, in the case of one millionaire enlisted man, a private airplane.

Greg Shirk, 44, of Visalia, made a small fortune in 2001 when his family sold its chain of 12 grocery stores to a Texas company. For a time, the tall, fair-skinned Shirk, a mere specialist in the National Guard, dabbled in business and politics.

A computer venture failed. Running as a Republican, Shirk lost a race for Tulare County supervisor. Two years ago, Shirk's marriage to an attorney ended in divorce. The final decree left his two-story, Southern-style mansion, modeled on the plantation house at Tara in "Gone With the Wind," to his ex-wife and two sons, 6 and 4.

"This deployment came at a really good time for me," Shirk said, interviewed in Visalia while on a three-day leave before returning to Ft. Irwin. "I was between jobs and just working at one of our ranches. Besides, I never thought this should be a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Shirk, tooling around town in his mother's Jaguar sedan, spent much of his leave visiting his two sons.

Sam, the 4-year-old, has his own camouflage fatigues and an Army-issue Kevlar helmet. The boys' mother, Jennifer Shirk, said that since Greg Shirk's assignment to Iraq, Sam has insisted on watching Fox News broadcasts instead of cartoons.

Sam has memorized the lyrics to Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." Singing it for a reporter in the sweeping grounds of the country estate outside Visalia, his voice rose when he got to the lines: "And I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free. And I won't forget the men who died, who gave that right to me." The youngster's fervent patriotism almost matches that of his father.

"Greg is probably the most patriotic person I know," said Greg's brother Eric Shirk, 40, who piloted Greg to the Barstow-Doggett airport in the private Cessna 182. "When I always wanted to go to Hawaii and sit on the beach, Greg wanted to visit a battlefield someplace."

At the airport, Greg Shirk embraced his stepfather, Visalia grocery magnate Leonard Whitney, a World War II veteran of 33 B-17 missions over Germany and a major influence in Greg's life.

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