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Emotional farewell as Ark. Guard soldiers prepare for Iraq

Hundreds of Arkansas National Guard soldiers lined the parade field at Camp Shelby on Thursday as emotional family members looked on and government officials paid tribute to a brigade that will soon be in Iraq.

The 39th Arkansas Infantry Brigade Combat Team has been training since January at Camp Shelby, a sprawling 136,000-acre base in south Mississippi. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe was among several leaders from Mississippi and Arkansas to attend a farewell ceremony on Thursday.

The brigade is expected to ship out in the coming weeks. This will be the second tour of duty for about half the soldiers in the 2,800-member brigade.

The deployment ceremony was especially difficult for Kelly Bolen, a 27-year-old from Pine Bluff, Ark., who is watching her husband, Michael, prepare for war the second time.

“We knew it was going to happen, we just didn’t know how soon,” said Kelly Bolen, who is pregnant with the couple’s third child.

The last time the 39th mobilized was in October 2003. The brigade spent five months training and shipped out in February 2004 before spending a year in Iraq.

“I want you to know how proud we all are of you,” Beebe said. “Millions of Americans would salute you if they were here.”

Col. Kendall Penn, commander of the 39th, said the unit will return to Iraq for 10 months starting in April. It will provide security to convoys and bases throughout the war-torn country.

“They’ve been ready and motivated since the alert came out,” Penn said.

The unit’s final week of training was an eventful one. Late Monday a tornado destroyed a barracks in which several soldiers were living. Fourteen troops received minor injuries.

Penn said those men will deploy with the brigade.

“(They) just got a few cuts, scrapes and bruises,” he said. “You couldn’t ask more from a bunch of soldiers we got here in terms of the ability to do the mission.”