JOHNSTOWN - Although dwarfed by the dozens of AH-64 Apache attack helicopters lining the tarmac and a massive set of aircraft hangar doors, Army National Guard Sgt. Maria Serenko appeared larger-than-life to her family - including her 3-year-old son, Caden, who buried his head in his mother's shoulder.
"He's overwhelmed," Serenko said with a smile.
Serenko was one of 325 Pennsylvania Army National Guard soldiers from the 1-104th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion honored at their unit's deployment ceremony Wednesday afternoon at the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Sgt. Maria Serenko of Portage hugs her 3-year-old son, Caden, during a send-off ceremony Wednesday at the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport.
The unit and their aircraft will be on a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan after completion of a training mission with members of the Arizona National Guard in Fort Hood, Texas.
"I'm excited. A little nervous," said Serenko, a Portage native and crew chief for the unit's Apache helicopters.
Flanked by her father and sister, Serenko said she was nervous for what would be her first overseas deployment.
The hardest part will be leaving behind her young son and family, she said.
Hundreds of family and friends gathered inside the aircraft hangar to say goodbye to their loved ones.
Battalion Commander Lt. Col. John Kovac, Maj. Gen. Wesley E. Craig, Maj. Gen. Randall R. Marchi and Col. David E. Wood watched as the 1-104th was presented with the Flight 93 Memorial flag, to be flown by the unit while stationed in Afghanistan.
U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-12th, all three Cambria County commissioners and other local political figures were also in attendance.
Sgt. William Beere II of Altoona enlisted in the National Guard at age 17 while still enrolled in high school. Now 30 years old, Beere said he was excited to be on his third overseas deployment.
Beerehad previously served in Kosovo and Iraq while in different units. He was stationed with the 1-104th about two years ago, he said.
"It is what it is," he said. "This is what I signed up to do."
But his deployment to Afghanistan will be the first time Beere and his wife, Stef, have been separated since their wedding in October.
"We're going to miss our first anniversary," Beere said, smiling down at his wife.
The two plan to chat as much as possible via cellphone, but with an eight-hour time difference, the pair said they expect some challenges in accommodating their different schedules.
Beere's mother, Grace Beere, and his mother-in-law, both decked out in custom T-shirts honoring Beere, also attended the ceremony.
"We're very proud of him," Grace Beere said, adding she was also somewhat scared to see her son deploy for a third time.
The unit's helicopters took flight from Johnstown on Wednesday, with two overnight stops planned before arriving in Texas on Friday. The unit's soldiers who were not tasked with piloting the Apache and Black Hawk helicopters were expected to arrive in Texas by the end of the week, officials said.
1st Lt. John Freeman, 31, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was one of the pilots selected to pilot an Apache helicopter to Texas.
"I'm looking forward to my first deployment," he said, grinning.
Freeman said he comes from a long line of military veterans - including his father and grandfather. His older brother is currently deployed overseas in the U.S. Marine Corps and his younger sister is on active duty in the Army, Freeman said.
"Growing up in a military family, we're very much used to it," Freeman said, speaking about his year-long deployment overseas. "I'm ready to go."
Sgt. Zacharia Davis, 24, of Greensburg was deployed overseas during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Now in a more senior leadership role, Davis said he was anxious to complete his training in Texas and arrive in Afghanistan.
"I'm actually kind of excited for this," Davis said.
Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.