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Soldiers' emotional goodbyes at ceremony

Staff Sgt. Steve Toboz of Hamilton, N.J., plays

Staff Sgt. Steve Toboz of Hamilton, N.J., plays with his 8-month-old son Stevie after a deployment ceremony at Hofstra University. He is a member of the Farmingdale-based 333rd Military Police Brigade and is heading to Fort Bliss, Texas, for mobilization training prior to deployment to Afghanistan. (Aug. 23, 2012) Credit: Charles Eckert

Uniformed soldiers headed for war said their goodbyes to friends and fellow soldiers at an emotional departure ceremony Thursday inside a cavernous football practice field at Hofstra University in Hempstead.

Some hugged, slapping each other on the back. Others smiled tightly, wishing each other good luck.

They were among about 100 members of the Army's Farmingdale-based 333rd Military Police Brigade who are scheduled to leave for Fort Bliss, Texas, Friday, the first stop on a yearlong combat deployment to Afghanistan.

Their impending departure serves as a reminder that, although the White House plans to end most combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of next year, war there continues to claim American lives.

More than 1,100 U.S. troops have been killed during the past 2 1/2 years of Operation Enduring Freedom, compared with about 950 in the first eight years of war there, according to military and news reports.

"It's definitely a little emotional when you realize there are only a few hours left before we leave," said Staff Sgt. Robert Weingartner, 31, of Port Jefferson Station, as his 17-month-old daughter, Aubrey, played on the arena's artificial grass.

Weingartner served in the chaotic first months of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But he was single then. This time, he will say goodbye to a wife and two daughters.

His elder daughter, Cambria, 7, played nearby, wearing a camouflage cap marked with a staff sergeant's chevron.

"I get to cut the line because I'm wearing a hat," she said, after slipping away from a lunch line with a dill pickle spear.

Weingartner said he found it hard to tell her he was going off to war.

"We tried to explain it to her the best we could," he said. "She's very proud, though, and tells everyone I'm in the Army."

Members of the brigade will be training uniformed Afghan personnel at a prison adjoining Bagram Air Field outside the capital, Kabul, said the unit's commander, Brig. Gen. Phillip Churn.

Churn acknowledged that a recent spate of attacks on U.S. troops by Afghan forces leaves the wives and children of departing soldiers on edge.

"It's a concern for any commander who wants to keep his soldiers safe," he said of the attacks.

Weingartner's wife, Jackie, 30, looked away when she was asked if she was concerned.

"I really don't watch the news," she said. "I don't want to see it."

As the Family Readiness Group leader for the brigade, it will be her job to help provide emotional support for the families of deployed troops.

"It's really about staying strong for him, staying strong for the kids," she said. "You're the last tear to fall. You have to hold it together for everyone."

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