HAMMOND — Staff Sgt. Rand Phillips had one last chance to take pictures with his family before being deployed to Kuwait.
Phillips, of the Louisiana National Guard’s 1021st Vertical Engineer Company, 205th Engineer Battalion, posed for photos with his wife Ashley, 3-year-old son Houston and many other family members and friends.
Phillips, who is preparing for his second deployment overseas, said the ceremony Friday was a great way for the soldiers to know that the community supports them.
“I think we live in a different day and age now, with all the long-term deployments and the frequent deployments, that they realize that the families are as important as the soldiers themselves,” he said.
Phillips was one of more than 160 soldiers in the 1021st Vertical Engineer Company who were honored Friday at a deployment ceremony at the Southeastern Louisiana University Center in Hammond before being shipped off to Kuwait in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The company, based in Covington, will conduct vertical construction operations, including assignments involving construction projects, working with concrete and performing plumbing and electrical system work.
The unit will leave Covington on Sunday to travel to Fort Bliss, Texas, for mobilization training before heading to Kuwait for a one-year deployment.
Before the festivities began, families and friends of soldiers were handed small American flags as they walked into the center. The Patriot Guard Riders, a military support organization that honors fallen veterans at their funerals, asked attendees to sign a Patriot Guard Riders flag for the company to take with them.
The crowd slowly trickled inside, eventually followed by the soldiers themselves.
Then the dignitaries joined the gathering, among them Gov. Bobby Jindal, Tangipahoa Parish President Gordon Burgess and Maj. Gen. Glenn Curtis, adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard.
Curtis thanked the soldiers — and their families — for the sacrifices they are making by serving their country.
Curtis also encouraged the families to take advantage of modern technology to keep in touch with the soldiers.
“Skype, email, videos, send care packages — you really can’t overdo it,” Curtis said. “Just stay in touch with them, because they will have some long days.”
Jindal said the Guard unit, by deploying overseas, will make an “extraordinary and historic mark on our nation and the world.”
Jindal told the soldiers that they are the kinds of role models that children should admire.
“Today, the history writers pick up their pens and begin to etch your names on the chronicles of time,” Jindal said. “Today you become an eternal member of the ancient battle to protect and defend freedom from those who hate it.”
Capt. Noel Bellas, the company’s commander, thanked his fellow soldiers for their dedication and perseverance.
To inspire his troops, Bellas pointed to the mottoes of the 1021st Engineer Company and 205th Engineer Battalion — “Above the rest” and “Come what will.”
“We will embrace and live both mottoes in order to represent the state of Louisiana while abroad,” he said. “God bless, and ‘Above the rest.’”
The Guardsmen then stood a final time to recite the Soldier’s Creed.
“I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life,” they said aloud. “I am an American Soldier.”
After the ceremony, the soldiers milled about the arena one final time, for one final chance at memories with loved ones before traveling thousands of miles to the Middle East.
Pfc. Devan Ceaser, of New Orleans, hung out with his immediate family. Like others, he took a few more photos and shared a few smiles before his departure.
Ceaser, who has been with the unit for only about six months, is preparing for his first deployment.
Though Ceaser said he’s prepared to leave, he said he was thankful to have his family there with him one last time.
“It’s the most important part,” he said.
His mother, Devanjee Ceaser, told him she’s just praying for his safe return.
“I love him and I’ll be with him in spirit,” she said.