FORT HOOD — Army spouses teared up as they looked at their loved ones through bus windows, while toddlers reached out their arms and cried, “daddy.”

Families of the deploying soldiers experienced a wave of emotions Saturday as they waited for them to leave Starker Physical Fitness Center for a nine-month deployment to Regional Command East in Afghanistan.

In addition to training 100 soldiers in the 59th Mobility Augmentation Company, 8th Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade, for their route-clearance mission, the battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. Mark Geraldi, said the unit spent the past year making sure families have the support network they need while their soldiers are overseas.

“The number one thing back here is the Family Readiness Group,” he said. “We’ve been doing events and training throughout the year to build camaraderie and skills for the family members left behind to (help them) cope with the separation from their soldiers.”

Capt. Andrew Elliott, the company’s commander, is confident the soldiers are prepared for their mission. He’s focused on making sure everyone comes back safely.

“I’ve been their commander for about a year, and the company is really close,” Elliott said. “Even when the new soldiers come in, it’s very family-oriented.”

The company’s 12-month training period started at the basic levels and culminated with four weeks at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. The premier center improves unit readiness by providing realistic joint and combined arms training across the full spectrum of conflict, Geraldi said. At Fort Polk, soldiers executed missions the same way they would in Afghanistan.

First Sgt. Valente Ortiz, who has already deployed twice to Afghanistan, said he’s more comfortable this time around.

“Being culturally aware of everything makes it a lot easier,” Ortiz said. “You know how they act, the gestures, the customs and what’s accepted and what’s not accepted.”

The hardest part was leaving his six children and wife, Jessica.

“(They go through) the normal spew of emotions,” he said.

Jessica is happy her husband has a career he loves that lets him serve the country, but it doesn’t erase the sadness of his deployment.

After about an hourlong wait, soldiers left for the airfield. As they drove off, some looked straight ahead while others craned their necks to get another glimpse of their loved ones.

“No matter how much preparation we do (before he) leaves, it never gets easier,” Jessica Ortiz said. “But, he’s a great soldier and we know when he leaves he’s going out there for a good reason. We know he’s going to come back.”

Contact Sarah Rafique at or (254) 501-7549. Follow her on Twitter at KDHreporter.

I'm the education reporter at the Killeen Daily Herald. Follow me on Twitter at

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