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Florida Citizen-Soldiers On Alert Say Goodbye
S. Florida Citizen-Soldiers On Alert
BY ELAINE DE VALLE, PHIL LONG AND MARTIN MERZER
January 10, 2003
Florida Army National Guard specialist Dennis Zayas is one of the 500-some reservists who got put on alert Thursday. He may be mobilized for up to a year in the war. He is at his Pembroke Pines apartment on Thursday night with his daughter Amanda Zayas, age 6, and his wife Danely Zayas.
LILLY ECHEVERRIA/HERALD STAFF
The march toward possible war with Iraq advanced deeply into South Florida homes, businesses and lives Thursday.
The Pentagon alerted the Miami-based First Battalion of the 124th Infantry, an Army National Guard unit, that it will be mobilized for active duty. Most of the 564 citizen-soldiers live and work in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
It will be the largest call-up thus far of local reservists or National Guard personnel -- and apparently the first of local combat troops.
Though their destination is not known, this is: Many lives are likely to change drastically during the next few weeks and months.
Initial thoughts of Specialist Dennis Zayas, 30, of Pembroke Pines: Time to increase the life insurance and sign a power of attorney and write a will. And embrace his wife, Danely.
''She is very worried,'' Zayas said as he stood in the Robert A. Ballard Armory in Liberty City, the unit's headquarters. ``She hugged me and started crying when I told her. But she supports me. She said for me to do whatever I have to do.''
Family and duty. For military personnel, sometimes the two must coexist uneasily.
Sgt. Lenin Otero, 23, has been a member of the National Guard for about a year. Before that, he was on active duty for four years, primarily with the 92nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C.
He was posted to four states and served a tour of duty in Germany, but he has never been away from home for as long as a year, and that could happen this time.
On Thursday, Otero thought of his wife, Sofimary, 22, and his infant daughter, Leiny, and he tried to make the best of things.
''It's not the quantity of the time,'' Otero said. ``It's the quality of the time.''
DADE AND BROWARD
In all, two-thirds of the unit's soldiers live in Miami-Dade or Broward. The rest come from Palm Beach County or other areas stretching as far north as Cocoa Beach.
Nearly all are civilians who meet one weekend a month and participate in a two-week summer training session.
Most pulled guard duty at South Florida airport and seaports after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the unit helped maintain order and was stationed at Goulds Park in South Miami-Dade.
On Thursday, their officers said much was still unknown, including when the irrevocable activation notice would arrive, when they will ship out, where they will end up or what their duties might be. The 53rd Infantry Brigade, the 124th Infantry's parent unit, has not yet received its orders.
The Pentagon's Iraq war plan calls for the use of up to 250,000 troops from all services. On Thursday, the Marine Corps blocked discharges for the next year. The order applies to all active duty and reserve Marines.
Initially, the South Floridians were expected to join about 1,300 soldiers from units of the 124th Infantry that are based in Central and North Florida. Placed on alert shortly before Christmas, those units were officially activated, traveled this week to Fort Stewart, Ga., and will begin field training next week.
Patrick Garrett of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit analysis firm based in Washington, D.C., said the entire 124th Infantry likely will be sent overseas.
''This is a definite possibility,'' he said. ``These battalions are attached to one of the premier units of the Army.''
Lt. Col. Ron Tittle, chief spokesman for the Florida National Guard, noted that the 124th Infantry is being issued desert camouflage ''battle dress'' uniforms, known as BDUs.
''Look around the world and see where they are wearing desert BDUs,'' he said. ``There is a good chance they will be going somewhere in that area.''
Chief among those places: the Persian Gulf.
National Guard troops and reservists are not as likely as regular troops to see combat, but they might. If so, South Florida's part-time soldiers said, so be it.
''That's why I joined the military, to defend America and fight for freedom,'' Zayas said. ``I knew it would come to that at one time.''
At the armory, the atmosphere was electric as officers grabbed ringing phones and began working through a list of predeployment activities.
''From the more senior people who have experience, there's a little bit of excitement tempered with nervousness and fear,'' said Jon Myatt, spokesman for the Florida Department of Military Affairs. ``But most of these guys have served active duty and they liked it.
``That's why they signed up for the guard. They know what the risks are. The concern isn't for themselves, it's mostly for their families.''
The military buildup also affected North Miami Police Officer Fresnel Desir, who has been called to active duty and will likely leave next week.
Desir, 38, one of the few Creole-speaking officers in a city with a booming Haitian population, is part of the Army's 260th Military Intelligence Unit. He doesn't know where he is being sent, but that might not be the worst part.
Desir became engaged on Christmas Day. Now, marriage will have to wait. ''My life is pretty much on hold,'' he said.
Back at the 124th Infantry, Zayas said he has been with the National Guard for 12 years. In civilian life, he works as a federal security screener at Miami International Airport. Before that, he served as a police officer in Puerto Rico for 12 years.
''I'd be a fool to tell you I'm not afraid,'' he said. ``Do I have a little bit of fear? Yes, because you don't want to die. But it makes me human and I think stronger when it comes time to face the music.
``I feel pretty good. The only thing that really concerns me is the well-being of my family -- knowing they'll be OK.''
Herald staff writer David Ovalle and research editor Elisabeth Donovan contributed to this report.
ABOUT THE UNIT
The Army National Guard 124th Infantry has almost 2,000 soldiers in three battalions headquartered in Miami, Orlando and Panama City. It accounts for about one-fifth of the Florida National Guard's 10,000 personnel.
As a standard light infantry ground combat unit, its soldiers fight on the ground, from vehicles and from the air. Their job is to take ground and hold it.
The unit's most common weapon is a Standard M16 A2 rifle, but soldiers also use M60 machine guns, shoulder-fired missiles and other light anti-tank weapons. They travel mostly by Humvees. As a combat unit, it has no women.
The soldiers train one weekend a month and a two-week stint in the summer.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, members served as security guards at airports and seaports. The 124th last saw combat in the Philippines near the end of the World War II.
-- Phil Long
Citizen-Soldiers Say Goodbye
By Pamela J. Johnson | Sentinel Staff Writer
January 5, 2003
Sgt. Hector Bonet carefully lined up next to his rucksack the essentials he would need during a military mission that could separate him from his family for two years:
*Four sets of camouflage uniforms
*Two sets of black combat boots
"I figured once he starts eating Army food . . .," said his wife, Yvette Bonet, tucking the bright pink bottle into his sack.
The youngest of their three sons, Kyle, 7, sat cross-legged fiddling with the shoelaces of one of his father's combat boots. Kyle knows that his father -- one of more than 600 Orlando-based National Guard members headed to Fort Stewart, Ga., today-- is going to the state where the Atlanta Braves play.
But as friends dropped by their St. Cloud home to bid emotional farewells Friday night, it started to sink in that Daddy is going off to war.
Bonet's Orlando-based 2nd Battalion of the 124th Infantry Regiment is scheduled to leave early today in a military convoy. The Bonet clan said it would join hundreds of other families at the armory on Fern Creek Avenue to kiss their loved ones goodbye.
Similar scenes were played out twice in Central Florida on Saturday.
Hundreds of family members gathered at the National Guard Armory in downtown Leesburg to say goodbye to the 141 soldiers with Company A of the 2nd Battalion of the 124th. About 20 members of the 146th Transportation Detachment of the Army Reserve held a farewell ceremony at their headquarters on Corrine Drive in Orlando. Both groups left for Fort Stewart.
They all will come under the command of Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who will lead U.S. forces if there is a war with Iraq. After two weeks of training, the soldiers could be deployed to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar or just about anywhere in Southwest Asia.
If war breaks out, the Pentagon would most likely mobilize about 100,000 National Guard and Reserve troops. In addition, nearly 51,000 people are already on active duty, mainly for homeland-defense tasks such as flying patrol missions over the United States.
Milestones will be missed
For 7-year-old Kyle, the massive mobilization means that Daddy won't be there for his First Holy Communion on May 18. Hector Bonet's orders mandate a 365-day mission, starting Dec. 26, 2002. But they warn he could be gone for up to two years.
That means he'll miss his 17-year-old son Kenneth's graduation from St. Cloud High School on May 19. An umpire for the St. Cloud Little League, Bonet also won't be able to coach his 10-year-old son Steven and the other players for a few seasons.
As he stuffed into his duffel bag a small but fat photo album filled with pictures of his mother, sons and several of his wife posing in a bikini, Bonet knew for certain that this was the last night he would be with his family for a good long while.
The troops slept at the armory Saturday night, after a gathering there that drew hundreds. At the event, the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Richard Gallant, made a promise to the families, many of whom were crying.
"My job is to make sure that each soldier comes home safely," he told the crowd. "I pledge to you that I will do that."
Yvette Bonet, who was standing in the audience in her husband's arms, said the comments gave her little comfort.
"It was nice of him to say," she said. "But no one can predict what will happen."
The night before, inside the two-story home Bonet built himself, Yvette Bonet watched her husband pack while sitting on carpeted steps in sock-covered feet.
Bonet tried to focus on the task at hand. He didn't want to think too much.
"You gear up for it and gear up for it," he said. "You try to put out of your mind everything you're going to miss. The next thing you know, the time is up and you're coming home . . . hopefully. It's all just starting to kick in. The kids know that tomorrow night I'm not coming home."
An 'old soldier'
At 41, Bonet considers himself an "old soldier." Reared in New York City as the fourth of seven boys, he joined the Marine Corps at 18. Four years later, the New York Police Department hired him as a patrol officer, but he continued as a reservist for the military. In 1984, he met Yvette Santana, a Bronx native with long curly black hair, while patrolling a Fourth of July event.
"My job was to observe everyone, and I observed her," he said of Yvette, now 43.
They were married in a ceremony at Central Park and moved to Central Florida in 1992 when Yvette was pregnant with Steven.
"I had slipped on a black sheet of ice and broke my wrist," Yvette Bonet recalled. "I said, 'That's it. This is my last winter in New York. We're moving to Florida.' "
They had been to Orlando on vacation, liked the area and decided to relocate to rural St. Cloud, away from the bustle of the city. Bonet took a job as a security guard while attending a police academy. When he realized he could make more money at the armory, he took full-time work there in 1993. He now trains soldiers for combat and does administrative duties.
He is used to being a weekend warrior; he trains away from the area one weekend a month. But he has never been gone for more than two weeks at a time.
"I took the job because it was a steady, 9-to-5 life," Bonet said. "Weekends and holidays off. Our life was stable -- until now."
Yvette Bonet, a juvenile-delinquency caseworker for Eckerd Youth Alternatives, worries that she will not be able to work while her husband is away. Usually, she works at night while her husband watches the youngest children. Kenneth cannot watch them because he works nights at a Walt Disney World shop.
Bonet has other concerns. While eating his last home-cooked meal for a while -- his favorite Puerto Rican dish, pastel, tamalelike and made with malanga, bananas and stuffed with shredded beef -- he suddenly remembered.
"My grass!" he blurted out. "Who is going to cut my grass?"
"I can take care of stuff, Dad," Steven said.
After dinner, Yvette Bonet used an electrical barber's shaver to trim her husband's hair close to the scalp on the sides. Bonet later poured himself a beer and played a game of pool with his boys. Yvette Bonet said she doesn't mind sharing her husband with visitors on his last night at home.
"When the bedroom door closes, that's my time," she said, laughing. "And I have a lock for the door."
Friends, neighbors pitch in
Finally, they said good night to the final guest, John Currier, another Little League coach.
"Watch over them when you get a chance, will you?" Bonet asked Currier.
Bonet was confident that his friends would keep an eye on his family. Still, he wasn't taking any chances.
Before turning in for the night, he slipped into the side pocket of his rucksack a rosary.