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Teary send-offfor reservists headed to Iraq

More than 3,000 Texas reservists are being sent to Iraq this week. It's the largest overseas deployment of the Texas National Guard since World War II. NBC News' Janet Shamlian reports on the troops New Year's send-off from Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
/ Source: NBC News

The Vegas aren't your typical Texas family. For starters, they have eight children under the age of 14. That would be a huge challenge for any parents, but it's about to become even more of a challenge.

Sgt. Roger Vega is leaving the family for at least a year. The Texas reservist has been called to duty and is heading to the war in Iraq.

"I worry, but I can't afford to worry," he said. "I can't put a lot of time into that, because of my job. I have to take care of that first. That way, I can come home."

Largest TX deployment since WW II
Vega is one of more than 3,000 reservists being sent to the war zone this week. It's the largest overseas deployment of the Texas National Guard since World War II.

For Lisa Vega, it means becoming a single parent to eight children as well as living with the constant fear that comes with having a loved one in harm's way.

"It's something he loves and enjoys," Lisa said. "So, yeah, I had second thoughts about him going and I didn't want him to go. But his love for the military is what drives him and I'm behind that one hundred percent."

The Vegas have prepared as best they can for the tough times ahead. Every child in the house, even 5-year-old Sonny, has learned how to help, whether it's rolling handmade tortillas for the family's breakfast or setting the table. In fact, the kitchen of the family's Dallas-area home is more orderly than a military mess hall at mealtime.

"I am nervous and scared," explained Lisa. "The kids are great, though, and they're going to help me through this."

The family has been through the hardship of having Roger gone before when he served in the Persian Gulf more than 10 years ago. As he leaves his family this time, he is torn between duty and being a daddy.

"I'm just a father trying to do the right thing," he said.

Husband and son in Iraq
Those sentiments are echoed by other families facing the same kind of sacrifice. Rose Mary Ruiz belongs to a club no mother wants to be a member of: Her son is on the front lines in Iraq. This week, her husband will join their son.

Rose Mary will stay home to care for the couple's two younger children and try not to focus on the plight of her husband and 21-year-old son.

"I'm just trying to be strong for the kids and not let them see my emotions," Ruiz said. "It's going to be hard with both Michael and my husband over there, but I don't regret what they are doing. I'm not upset and I'm not angry. I just support them."

Rose's daughter-in-law, Genesia, is more emotional about the situation. She's pregnant with the couple’s first child.

"It doesn't hit you until you wake up and see on the news that your husband's camp got bombed," said Genesia Ruiz.

Michael was in the Mosul camp during December's attack but was not hurt. Still, the trauma has taken its toll.

"The worst part is, you live your life telling yourself if there isn't a general and a chaplain knocking at my door, then he’s OK," said a crying Genesia Ruiz.

Her father-in-law, Command Sgt. Maj. Leonard Ruiz, never envisioned such dangerous duty when he signed up for the Texas National Guard more than two decades ago.

"I've done numerous fires and hurricanes and tornadoes, but never wartime like this," he said.

Still, his concern is not for himself. "I guess from a father's standpoint, I don't worry about myself as much as I worry about him," Leonard Ruiz acknowledged. "I have a lot of fear."

New Year's send off
The reservists have had six months of training in preparation for their work in Iraq. To help them and their families prepare emotionally, there was a celebratory send-off on New Year’s Day at Baylor University in Waco, Texas

More than 25,000 friends and family members of the 56th Brigade Combat Team, 36th Infantry Division gathered at the university stadium, waving flags and cheering as the soldiers ran onto the field during the ceremony.

“I love you, Daddy,” one little girl yelled from the stands. Many people held signs bearing their loved ones’ names or pictures. Others held only tissues for the tears. It will be at least a year before many of solders return.

With patriotic songs and political speeches over, the stands emptied at the ceremony’s end and families and soldiers reunited on the field.

The troops boarded buses back to Fort Hood. Some were scheduled to board planes for Iraq within a few hours. The rest will deploy within the next few days.

“I love you,” Rose Mary Ruiz said as she embraced her husband on the field. “Give my love to Michael and come home to me,” she said as they both cried openly. 

All around them were similar scenes as other families said their final farewells.