Houston Marine families embrace, and brace for 7 months of war
If you ask Arnulfo Rocha's four children why their daddy has to go to Afghanistan, they'll say, "Daddy's going to fight the bugs and the bad guys."
"I'm not sure where they got that, but that's their understanding," laughed Rocha, a 32-year-old Marine reservist from Houston.
The Rocha children said goodbye to their father on Tuesday, as the sergeant and hundreds of other citizen-Marines assigned to 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, departed Houston for pre-deployment training at Camp Pendleton in California.
The 800 Marines and Navy corpsmen of the 1/23 — known as "The Lone Star Battalion" — are preparing for a seven-month combat tour in Afghanistan next year. Except for a few days of leave for the Christmas holiday, when the reservists will return home from training, many will not see their families for an entire year.
Headquartered at Houston's Ellington Field, the 1/23 will be only the third Marine Reserve battalion to serve in Afghanistan, said Lt. Col. Russell Todd Zink, commanding officer.
The reservists' arrival in the war zone is expected to coincide with an intensified surge of U.S. forces against the Taliban. Insurgent attacks continue to take a heavy toll on American troops in Afghanistan. Eleven Houston-area service members have been killed there so far this year, the most since the war began almost 10 years ago.
This is the second combat tour for Rocha, who previously served in Iraq. This time, he will take a leave of absence from his civilian job as a stock controller with H-E-B to mobilize for duty in Afghanistan.
About 60 percent of the battalion has deployed before, mostly to Iraq.
"It never gets easier," said Rocha's wife, Wendy.
She said the TV news will be off limits to the couple's children: Alycia, 10, Lillee, 8, Jenna, 6 and A.J., 3.
"They're starting to understand it more, but I don't want them to hear everything because all you hear is, you know, casualties," she said.
'In God's hands'
Lance Cpl. Jacob Portillo, 23, of Spring, has no illusions about the danger.
"The only thing I said about it is everything's in God's hands," Portillo said. "But pretty much whatever's out there, it's out there. They train us very well for it."
On Tuesday morning, Portillo kissed his sleeping toddler son at home and headed solo to Ellington Field, where the Marines boarded buses for Hobby Airport to catch flights to California.
It was easier that way, said Portillo, a student at Lone Star College-University Park.
"I know he's going to be a little different when I get back," he said of his son, Jacob Christian, 14 months. "But he definitely reminds me of why I'm out there."
His wife, Anne Nicole Portillo, is expecting the couple's second child, another boy, while Portillo is in Afghanistan.
Newlywed Kayla Chirdo, 22, came to Ellington on Tuesday to say goodbye to her husband, Cpl. Joe Chirdo, 23, of Houston.
The couple married in his backyard on Sept. 25. Kayla hopes to see her husband at Thanksgiving and Christmas and plans to visit him in California one last time before he leaves for Afghanistan early next year.
"It'll be tough, but I'm going to fly out with his family," she said. "I've known it's coming since we started dating. I've had a lot of time to prepare for it."
She added that other Marine wives and girlfriends will be a lifeline for her while her husband is away.
Sue and Earl Shipp drove 16 hours from Indian Shores, Fla., to see off their son, Lance Cpl. Bryan Shipp, 23, a 2006 graduate of Kingwood High School. He earned his bachelor's degree from Texas State in August and immediately began readying for this deployment, his first.
"We're proud of him," Sue Shipp said. "Nervous at the same time."
Her son and his friend Sgt. Jordan Hendricks, 25, commemorated their departure by getting American flag tattoos.
Hendricks was born and raised in Houston and graduated from Cy-Falls High School in 2004. He served four years as an active duty Marine, including a tour in Iraq.
He took a break from his civilian job at a Houston guns and ammo shop to volunteer for this deployment.
Like many Marines in the 1/23, Hendricks says he's anxious to finish the battalion's pre-deployment training and get to Afghanistan.
"You can never be too prepared for anything, but I expect to take the fight to them," Hendricks said. "That's what I expect."
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