December 26, 2008 – Mike Slenker spent Christmas much like anybody. He watched his young son open his presents, enjoyed the company of his family, ate a lot of good food.
But it was special. The ham and turkey tasted so good. And his grandma's macaroni and cheese -- his favorite, made especially for him -- was awesome, as usual.
Yet, there was something hanging over the family celebration and the time spent with his wife of nearly three years and his son, Michael Jr., who turned 2 on Christmas eve.
On Jan. 2, Slenker, 21, will report to Fort Dix in New Jersey. From there, he will go with his Pennsylvania National Guard unit to Kuwait and then to Iraq and a Forward Operating Base in Taji, about 20 miles northeast of Baghdad. He is a member of a massive National Guard deployment from Pennsylvania that will be spending much of 2009 in Iraq.
"It's going to be tough," said Slenker, a William Penn Senior High School alum. "It's my job. If you look at it that way, that it's a job, it's a lot easier to deal with."
There were a lot of tears shed at the family Christmas gathering. His grandmother was especially anxious.
"He's a grandma's boy," Slenker's wife, Cassandra, said.
It comes with the job.
Slenker, of York, signed up for the National Guard in 2004, before he graduated from high school.
He said he joined to get the benefits and money for college. Slenker, who normally works at Best Buy in Springettsbury Township, takes classes online from Grantham University; he'll be able to keep up with his classes during his deployment.
And while he's not completely happy with being deployed -- and missing a large part of his young son's life -- he knows it's something he has to do.
"I signed up for this," he said, matter-of-factly.
It could have been worse. Cassandra is also a member of the Guard, and there was a chance that they both would have been deployed at the same time. They dodged that when, on the eve of her planned deployment, Cassandra learned she was pregnant. She has since miscarried.
Their son would have had to stay with Slenker's family while they were overseas. As it is, Cassandra will be home.
"There's been some talk that there will be another deployment when he gets back, and I'd have to go when he gets home," Cassandra said. "That would be terrible."
They truly are a Guard family. Slenker met his wife, a native of Monroe, La., during basic training. Before this deployment, the farthest Slenker has been from home was his wife's hometown.
He is one of 4,000 members of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard's 28th Division 56th Stryker Brigade being deployed this year. They are replacing another Guard unit that's rotating home.
The citizen-soldiers got a few days off for the holidays between training in Mississippi and reporting to Fort Dix to head off to war.
A nephew of one of the guys in his unit is among those who will be coming.
"His nephew told him to hurry up and get over here so he can go home," Slenker said.
And although the intensity of the war has slackened somewhat, it's still a war zone. Slenker's unit has been told to be wary of mortar attacks on the base, that the sporadic bombardments are the greatest threat to their safety.
Slenker will be spending his deployment on the base. He is classified as an NBC specialist -- NBC standing for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. But since the threat of any of those types of attacks is almost nonexistent, he has been transferred to mostly supply duty.
It is still a war zone, though, and he knows there are risks.
"I do think about it," he said. "There's nothing I can do to prepare my family if that happens. I just try not to think about much. I'll use my training to not let that happen."
Training for deployment has taken him away from his family for long stretches. This past summer, he was away for training for three months, which was like an eternity to his son.
"When I came home after being gone for so long, he was kind of hesitant to come up to me," he said.
Cassandra said, "When he got home, (his son) looked at him like he was a stranger. It broke his heart. But later, he said "daddy" all night long."
He will be able to keep in touch with his family through e-mail and video Web casts.
Still, he said, it's not the same as being there and watching his son play with his Thomas the Tank Engine toys or wrestle with his Dalmatian/pit bull mix, Precious.
And although he will have some of the comforts of home -- his grandmother got him a 19-inch flat screen TV to take with him -- he will miss home. He heard the food at the base is pretty good for military fare, but nothing comes close to grandma's macaroni and cheese.
He said he's ready to go.
"The sooner I start with this," he said, "the sooner I'll get it done."
ABOUT THE GUARD
The 4,000 members of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard's 28th Division 56th Stryker Brigade are expected to deploy for Kuwait on Jan. 6 from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
After a few weeks there, they will move into Iraq, where they will likely remain for a year.
Those units include Battery A of the 1st Battalion, 108th Field Artillery, based in Hanover, and Troop D 2nd Squadron, 104th Cavalry, based in York. Both of these units have about 50 people.
Guard members living in York County are also serving in some of the 28 other Stryker Brigade units based around the state.
The brigade has been training at Camp Shelby, Miss., and Fort Polk, La., since September.
ABOUT THE STRYKER BRIGADE
- The Pennsylvania National Guard, regarded as one of the nation's largest and most deployed state Guards, is the only one with a Stryker brigade.
- The first Stryker vehicles arrived here in June 2006.
- There are 10 variations of the 19-ton, eight-wheeled vehicles to meet different needs, such as carrying troops, medical evacuation, mine detection and heavy artillery.
- The vehicles, which can travel up to 75 mph, are viewed as one of the ways to make the Army lighter, faster and more technologically savvy.
- The Stryker can climb over boulders and heat up a soldier's meal.
- Its periscopes and TV monitors allow the driver and gunner to operate it without opening the hatches.
- It detects the presence of chemical and biological agents and has an air filtration system.
- Its computers can run diagnostic tests to pinpoint malfunctions or show a real-time, interactive map that allows the soldiers to track the location of other Stryker vehicles and program in enemy positions.