St. George • Thousands of southern Utahns showered their soldiers and the soldiers' families with love Thursday night, two days before 475 members of the Utah National Guard's Second Battalion, 222nd Field Artillery deploy to Iraq to help draw the curtain on war.
The soldiers craftsmen and cops, teachers and technicians accepted several rounds of ovations and listened to the moving patriotic music of the Southern Utah Legacy Choir and singer Dave Reber during the community's "Embracing Our Heroes" event. City and county leaders along with Guard officials signed a covenant of support for military families. There was flag-waving and, at one point, red, white and blue confetti dropped from the ceiling at Dixie State College's Burns Arena.
But it was sobering words of the soldiers' leader, Major General Brian L. Tarbet, adjutant general of the Utah National Guard, that underscored the gravity of the 12 months ahead.
Of all the deployments of the Triple Deuce through the years, including during the Korean War and earlier in the Iraq War, this one will be the most challenging, Tarbet said.
"Withdrawal from contact during war is the most difficult of maneuvers, and [families] need to know that," Tarbet said. "We are not going over there to do a sleep walk through the last six months of the war. This is a dangerous business."
The 222nd, comprising units in St. George, Cedar City, Beaver, Fillmore and Richfield, will provide security for coalition forces as they withdraw from Iraq. The 475 members will first go to Camp Atterbury, Ind., for several weeks of mission-specific training and are expected to arrive in Iraq later this summer.
While the 222nd is leaving, the 141st Military Intelligence Battalion is returning from Iraq soon, and a couple of dozen family members connected to those soldiers were given flowers and gifts onstage while they watched video messages from their soldiers in Iraq.
Tarbet said he'll be at Fort Lewis in Washington when the 141st returns on Monday.
The "Embracing Our Heroes" event, which began as a plan for a modest tribute to military families as part of the U.S. Army's Community Covenant program, blossomed into a communitywide celebration, prompting Tarbet to say he wished every American could have witnessed the outpouring of support.
"This, people, is a civics lesson," said Tarbet. "Thank you, St. George!"
Staff Sgt. Emmanuel Santiago, said he, too, had never seen anything like Thursday's tribute.
This will be his third deployment, and the toughest so far because he is leaving two young sons, ages 4 and 16 months, with his wife.
"I have never felt community support this strong before," said Santiago, who served in several other Utah Guard units before joining the 222nd two years ago.
Staff Sgt. Joshua Cluff said such support "is one of the things I love about southern Utah."
Employers throughout the region are "Guard-friendly," and work with members to allow them to do both jobs, said Cluff, also on his third deployment.
His 10-year-old daughter, Azure, however, was blunt about how she and her brother feel about their father leaving again:
"We don't like it."
Capt. Jason Seegmiller, coordinator for the Utah National Guard's Community Covenant program and a native of St. George, said Thursday's event was unusually big, although there have been 30 covenant-signing ceremonies in Utah communities since the initiative began in February 2010.
The idea is to forge stronger relationships between military families and the communities in which they live.
Utah is the first state to have a full-time team working on community covenants, he said. Six Guard employees work in the program.
"It's a two-way relationship. We commit as military to fulfill our obligation, in natural disasters or in war," Seegmiller said. "We pledge to do our duty and as part of the covenant, the community gets to decide the way in which they will support our military families and veterans."