Grantham UniversityJuly 23, 2003 - Local soldiers have farewell gathering in Slidell before heading for Afghanistan.

The staff of Grantham University, an online university located in Slidell, Louisiana, lined both sides of the street to honor the troops from Camp Villere as they deployed to Afghanistan. Many of these same servicemen have recently enrolled at the university. The Grantham staff was also joined by family members of some of the soldiers.

Posters bidding goodbye to family members and friends adorned the walls of Slidell Municipal Auditorium Thursday afternoon as Company C 205th Engineer Battalion of the Louisiana Army National Guard prepared for deployment to Afghanistan. Headquartered in Bogalusa, Company C is deploying in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and our nation's continuing War on Terror. Approximately 500 soldiers have been activated for a period of up to 12 months to support the mission.

"They have been called because they are needed and because they are ready" said Major Douglas Mouton, addressing the crowd of soldiers and their families. The audience burst into applause as Mouton added, I would like to quote President George Bush - 'Bring it on.' We're Ready."

Lt. Kenny Knaps, 38, of Hammond was one of the many soldiers present at the farewell ceremony surrounded by the support of family and friends. With two daughters, ages 4 and 7, and a 33-year-old wife Tina, Knaps said the prospect of leaving his family behind is a tough one to face. "It's been hard," he admitted. But to make the transition easier, he says he's been spending as much time with his family as he can squeeze in before he leaves. "The girls are always wanting me to stay up late with them and watch TV or play games," he laughed.

Knaps' wife said it's been rough anticipating her husbands extended absence from home, but she maintains a positive attitude for the sake of her family. "I just think of all the wars in the past, and what those families must have gone through," she said. "My daughters are okay with it because they know he has to go."

Ashley, Knaps' older daughter, is anxious for her father to build a school for the children he will encounter in the Middle East, and she "prays every day for everyone out there," said Tina.

Thanks to Family Support Group programs, Tina's and other families like hers know that they will have a large support system during the long months their loved one is overseas.Slidell resident Tara Dillon, local family readiness group leader, said the many support programs will provide families not only with social activities, but with briefings on medical and law issues as well.

"I'm the person everyone comes to if they're having problems," she laughed. "I try to do things for the kids and wives to keep everyone in touch. We have a phone tree to let everyone know how they're doing." Dillon's husband of two years, Staff Sergeant James Dillon, is deploying with Company C and leaving her behind to care for their 20-month-old child. "He's been overseas, but never for this length of time," she said. "It's going to be really hard when he leaves."