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Activation of Guard gives 'rude' awakening

Sunday, January 5, 2003

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- During the 11 years he spent in the Army, Curtis McQuaid was sent to Bosnia, Korea and Saudi Arabia. He thought those days were over when he later joined the National Guard.

But in what he calls a "very rude, very sudden" awakening, the father of five has become one of 1,200 soldiers ordered to duty as part of the Florida National Guard's biggest call-up since World War II.

The soldiers were being shipped during the weekend to Fort Stewart, Ga., for training before being given an undisclosed assignment. With terrorism still a threat and another war against Iraq looming, an overseas deployment is a possibility.

McQuaid, now a staff sergeant, said the Florida guardsmen compare well with their active-duty counterparts.

"I heard the rumors about the National Guard being lazy, but these guys really impressed me," said McQuaid, 34, of Pensacola. "I believe we're ready to go now."

The Florida soldiers -- members of the 124th Infantry Regiment's 2nd Brigade in Orlando and its 3rd Brigade in the Panhandle -- represent a wide cross-section of the population: students, government employees, construction workers, law enforcement officers and even a state legislator, Rep. Carey Baker, who serves as a first sergeant.

They range from veterans such as McQuaid to rookies fresh out of basic training. Many have spent years training without being called up except to assist during hurricanes and various other emergencies.

"I'm excited about it, to tell you the truth," said Spec. Keith Howey, 22, of Pensacola. "This is my chance to put all my training to work."

Howey had a full-time job installing counter tops while taking classes at Pensacola Junior College. He is now deferring his plans to transfer to Florida State University.

Training for job

No one relishes combat, said Capt. Gil Petruska, a company commander from Pensacola.

"But the fact is these guys have been training for years to do a job," he said. "Whatever it is, we'll do it."

Petruska, 35, has a wife and two young children. He is leaving a job as a civilian research analyst for the Naval Education and Training Command at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

The soldiers have family care plans to help their spouses deal with matters such as insurance and mortgage payments, Petruska said. The Guard also has counselors and a hot line.

"Whether it's a hurricane or this, we have a requirement to make sure the families are ready," Petruska said.

The call-up also means employers must do without key workers, such as Sgt. 1st Class Michael Boddy, 39, of Pensacola, a father of two who is training director for Santa Rosa County Tax Collector Robert McClure.

"As soon as I mentioned the fact I was being deployed, it was like 'Don't worry, we're just looking forward to having you back,"' Boddy said.

Pfc. Josh Odom, 20, a karate teacher who graduated from Tallahassee Community College last month and plans to study criminology at Florida State, said he hadn't given much thought to the possible danger.

But his mother has.

"I didn't anticipate that he would ever be deployed as a national guardsman," said his mother, Sherry Coombs. "You know, this was helping out with school."


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