Six-year-old Nicole Waugh stood dressed in a bright pink coat beneath the window of a military bus, straining for a glimpse of her father on the other side of the glass.
As the bus pulled away, she waved furiously and shouted: “Bye, Bye Daddy!”
It was the last time she would see him for at least 12 months.
Fort Benning, a US army base straddling the Georgia-Alabama border, is the home of the 598th Maintenance Company, which headed out to Iraq for the third time in five years on Thursday.
“She’s seen him go once before,” said Mariah Waugh, Nicole’s mother, holding back tears. “But it’s harder this time because she understands what’s happening.”
The departure came three weeks after President George W. Bush visited Fort Benning to explain his controversial plan to increase troop numbers in Iraq.
It was an appropriate choice of location because nowhere else in the US has been asked to make more sacrifices for the Iraqi cause.
In addition to the 598th Company, made up mostly of equipment mechanics, the much larger 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division is scheduled to leave Fort Benning next month for a third tour of Iraq.
If there is any discontent on the base about Mr Bush’s “surge” strategy, it was kept well hidden as the 598th Company bade farewell to family and friends before boarding buses to the nearby military airfield.
“We leave the politics to the politicians and just get on with our job,” said Matthew Hendrix, 30, whose mother had travelled from Florida to see him off. A similar response came from almost every soldier and family member questioned by the Financial Times.
While nobody was prepared to openly criticise Mr Bush, few expressed enthusiasm for the war. As recently as a year ago, most troops leaving for Iraq could be relied on to talk convincingly about the mission to spread democracy and fight terrorism. But at Fort Benning this week, the mood was summed up by Chris Bergevine, a 19-year-old gun mechanic: “We’re soldiers, we do what we’re told.”
Cpt Andrea Rogers, commander of the 170-strong company, said she had stopped listening to debate about the war to avoid becoming demoralised, a comment echoed by several of her soldiers and their families. “I don’t want anything to prejudice the way I do my job,” she said, while overseeing last-minute preparations.
Family members said the daily barrage of bad news from Iraq and rising anti-war sentiment in the US added to their stress. “It is difficult to take all the negativity when your husband is out there risking his life,” explained Ariana Wiggington, 30, as her husband savoured time with their five-month-old son before boarding his bus.
The atmosphere ranged from nervous excitement among young and footloose soldiers heading to Iraq for the first time to deep mournfulness among those leaving behind spouses and children. “Hopefully this will be the last time I set foot in Iraq,” said James Bey, standing beside his wife and six-year- old daughter. “But I doubt it.”
Military families are not the only people affected by the exodus. With the 3rd Brigade training in California ahead of its March deployment and the 598th Company gone, businesses near Fort Benning have lost a large part of their market.
Rose’s Caribbean Restaurant, a modest diner with a Bob Marley poster on its wall and a Bible beside the cash register, is normally packed at lunchtime. But at 1pm last Thursday, a lone soldier was the only customer. “Usually at this time we would have a line stretching out of the door,” said Rose Collins, the owner. “But when troops are away, business dies.”
For Victory Pawn & Trading Post, one of many pawnshops lining the road to Fort Benning, the loss of trade from absent soldiers is offset by a surge in business before they depart. Many young servicemen choose to pawn their possessions instead of putting them in storage. Others come shopping for engagement and wedding rings to cement relationships against the strain of a year apart. “Lots of soldiers get married before they leave,” said Bianca Law, standing behind the jewellery counter in Victory Pawn. “They’ve cleared us out of wedding bands.”
Daniel Foreman married his pregnant fiancé, Sarah, three weeks before leaving for Iraq with the 598th Company. Their baby is due in April. As soldiers started boarding their buses on Thursday, the newly-weds, both in their early 20s, remained locked in a tearful embrace. Eventually, Mr Foreman broke away to join his platoon. As he did so, another soldier turned to Ms Foreman and shouted: “Don’t worry Sarah, I’ll look after him.”