Capt. Pancho Perez-Cruz took a moment to reflect for us. In a few minutes he would take off for Iraq by way of Kuwait, at age 30 already a veteran tank company commander with two tours under his belt. "Last night I was thinking," he said, "what would I say to my guys? Should we do a prayer, or not?" He said he knew many of his soldiers were nervous, and that he knew from experience what that feeling was like, especially for the rookies. "It's fear of the unknown, but it's all right to have that: that means you're living. That means you're alive."
They did the prayer. "We come to you today, Lord, a little nervous, a little scared," Pancho's first lieutenant intoned. "Lord, look afer our families, and give us the strength we need to do our jobs. Keep us all safe so we can all come home, amen." Pancho spoke to his men, huddled close around him. "Keep your head in the game, stay together, stay tight, and we'll be all right. Hoo-ahh?" As one they answered, "Hoo-ahh!"
For hours before those moments, we'd watched Pancho's soldiers and the hundreds of other soldiers from the 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division as they struggled with the task of saying goodbye to their loved ones. Spouses and kids and rucksacks and gear gathered out front of the company barracks at Fort Benning, Ga. Some of the family tableaus we observed were so intimate, so personal, I felt vaguely self-conscious that we were there with our cameras to record those scenes. One small vingnette: in a group of children playing tag in the sun, an 8-year old girl named McKenzie Scurria suddenly walked away from the game and sat on her haunches against the wall, sobbing steadily. She kept repeating, through her tears, "I don't want my Daddy to leave... I don't want my Daddy to leave." Her Daddy, Sgt. Anthony Scurria, was leaving for his third tour, so McKenzie knew what she and her mom and two sisters were in for. Another little girl came over to McKenzie and yanked at her ballcap playfully. "You just have to have confidence," she recited brightly, "that he's gonna come back... soon!" McKenzie looked at her friend, her tears still flowing, unable to nod or even force a smile. A few minutes later she walked over to her dad, who pulled her and her sisters and their mom into a big group hug, all of them holding onto each other as hard as they could.
Two of the other characters we've been following in our "On the Line" series also had a tough time separating from their families. Twenty-one-year-old Spc. Juan Delgado, a Columbian-born immigrant from Miami, had turned his attention back to the soldiers and the war he'd already spent one year fighting, even as his fiance, Estefania Lopez, tried to extend her last moments with him. But in his mind, he was already gone. "The people you go to war with," he told us, "you're never going to forget them. They'll be your friends forever, you know? I'm Spanish, one of my best friend's a redneck, another's a black guy... but it's not about a race difference. We're just buddies." For long stretches, waiting to go off with his buddies, we watched Juan fiddling with his gear or talking with one cluster of buddies or another, Estefania standing off in the distance, waiting for him to come back to her. Later she would e-mail me, asking if I knew of a way she could find a job in Iraq, or a position as a volunteer, any way at all, so she could stay close to Juan.
Pvt. Josh James of San Jose struggled just as much saying goodbye to his wife Kaylee and son Lucas. Only 19, Josh had told us he was a high school dropout who'd joined the Army to find himself, and that while he knew he'd likely find himself in Iraq at some point he didn't think it would happen this quickly. "It's a totally mental change," he's said of his role as a soldier heading off to war. "You know, you go from being one person to being another person, instantaneously." He'd told us since we met him in early February that the prospect of going to war... especially this war... was a source of constant fear, but that he was dealing with it. Now, on the day he was leaving, what was he thinking? "I've been training to do this... drill after drill, and over and over and over again. I'm ready, you know? It's my time to kill." Still, just a half hour earlier when he'd pulled away from a tearful Kaylee, he'd had to repeat a mantra to himself to get through that moment. "It was pretty much: 'Just keep going, don't look back, it's not goodbye, I'm only going to be gone a little while.'"
Now we're going too, and for our NBC team --producer John Zito and our camera crew Bill Angellucci and Stan Ouse -- it will in fact be just a little while. An embed of just a few weeks with the soldiers we've been following, and their unit. We'll see and hear what they see and hear, share their experiences of a war now in its fifth year, and we'll see how their families back home are coping. Josh and Juan may post their own dispatches in this blog, perhaps with photos or video or Webcam interviews. We believe the soldiers and their families -- the only Americans directly impacted by the war -- can be the best war reporters.
Packing my own gear yesterday, I recalled something Pancho said in his first interview with us six weeks ago at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif. I'd asked him about the politics surrounding the debate about the war, and while he'd conceded he sometimes had spirited discussions about it, even with his father-in-law who had serious questions about the way the war's been going now, those discussions had no impact on his role as a leader of soldiers in combat. "You don't fight for anything that's grandiose," he'd said, "you know, philosophical things. You fight for your brothers, for the guy standing next to you. That's what we do."
Next week, we'll be among the guys standing next to Pancho. Couldn't be in better hands.
Editor's note: You can find all our "On the Line" reports here, along with the rest of the broadcast's ongoing coverage of the war in Iraq.