253rd Military Police Company deploys for pre-Iraq training

By Mike Blackerby knoxnews.com

LENOIR CITY - Sgt. Jonathan Heck of Talbott had been through the emotional overseas deployment routine before, but this time was different.

Saying goodbye to his wife and family was as tough as usual for Heck, but the prospects of seeing his two young sons for the last time for about a year was especially gut-wrenching.

Heck and the soldiers in the 253rd Military Police Company deployed Sunday morning from the Lenoir City National Guard Armory.

It was Heck's first deployment since his wife, Ashley, gave birth to the couple's sons, 20-month-old Peyton and 2-month-old Justin.

The playful Peyton wore his father's dog tags, combat-action badge and wedding ring on a chain.

"I've been to Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay and now I'm going to Iraq, so I guess this is my trifecta," Heck said.

"With the other two (deployments) I didn't have kids, so this one is a little more difficult. I'm gonna miss them a whole lot."

The 170 soldiers traveled with police and motorcycle escort to McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base and then flew to Fort Dix, N.J., where they will undergo 30 to 45 days of specialized training before leaving for their ultimate destination in Iraq.

About 80 percent of the soldiers in the company are military police. The rest are medics, cooks and administrative and maintenance personnel.

Heck's mother, Linda Hayes, and sister, Jessica Coakley, were also on hand to see him off.

"I've been through this before with him," Hayes said.

"He wouldn't admit it, but it's tough on him. It's hard for everybody, but it's really going to be hard on his wife this time."

Capt. Dallas Clements, commander of the company, said the unit has been preparing for this deployment for more than a year.

"This company has accomplished very difficult, demanding training over the last two years.," he said. "They truly are not happy unless they are training hard. They've taken everything we've thrown at them."

Clements said the families, like the Hecks, have sacrificed much the last few years.

Nearly 20,000 Tennessee Army and Air National Guardsmen have mobilized since Sept. 11, 2001.

"It's certainly a hard thing to be away from one's family. One out of every three soldiers (from the 253rd) has been to Iraq or Afghanistan and probably 40 percent has had some overseas deployment," he said.

Sgt. Jeff Porter of Cleveland, Tenn., and his girlfriend, Cristen Cross, also said their final goodbyes until the completion of the mission, which could last as long as 400 days.

Cross said she'll be marking off the days on her calendar.

"As soon as it gets to 401 I'm calling somebody if he's not back," said Cross, allowing a slight smile.