HAMMONTON — Not even a kiss on the forehead could console Samina Malik, who clung to her 20-year-old son, Mohammed Masood, as he prepared to leave Sunday for a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
Masood, of Galloway Township, is the son of Pakistani parents and a practicing Muslim. The New Jersey National Guardsman said joining the military is something he always wanted to do because of the camaraderie and honor.
Masood’s family — brothers, sisters, father and friends — stood around him as he embraced his mother at the Hammonton Armory and reassured her of his safety.
“I’ll be back,” Masood said as his mother wiped tears from her face.
More than 100 National Guard members from the 150th Engineer Company departed Sunday to start an Operation Enduring Freedom deployment in Afghanistan. They will start their deployment with their mobilization station at Camp Shelby, Miss.
Masood’s sister, Umara Malik, said she and her brother spent time together Saturday night as he prepared to leave.
“I just don’t want him to go. He’s always there for me. Out of all three of my brothers, everyone knows he’s my favorite,” Umara said as she started to cry softly.
His father, Malik Ashraf, said Masood is from a long line of soldiers — many of them high-ranking in the Pakistani military.
Masood is a student at Atlantic Cape Community College, where he studies biology. He said he plans to become a doctor because he wants to save lives.
Filled with mixed emotions Sunday morning — excitement and nervousness — he said one thing is certain: he will pray every day during his deployment.
“I am Muslim, but we all wear green here and we’re all the same. We’re all brothers and sisters, and I have the full support of everyone here,” he said.
“They’re my family. They’re going to take care of me and I’m going to take care of them,” he said.
Just a few steps across the crowded parking lot, three other guardsmen who call themselves the Three Musketeers — Marc La Touche, of Egg Harbor City, Antoine Nelson, of Pleasantville, and Mackenson Previl, of Somers Point — were saying goodbyes to loved ones.
“We’re good. Me, Nelson and Previl, we’re all pretty tight and we’re doing this together,” La Touche said.
Nelson and his wife, Stephanie, 22, have three children.
“It’s upsetting when you think about it, but I am trying to stay calm strong for him,” Stephanie said as the clock ticked and it was almost time for her husband to board a bus to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
Samenta Previl said she was also trying to keep her composure for her husband.
“We had a get together last night and our family was there. We had a nice time. We prayed,” she said.
The 150th Engineer Company includes guard members from 19 of New Jersey’s 21 counties. The counties with the most deploying members are Atlantic with 25, Camden with 13, Ocean with 12, Burlington and Monmouth with nine each, and Gloucester with seven. The unit is led by Capt. Jeffrey Hager and First Sgt. Paulo Amado. Once in Afghanistan, they will construct necessary infrastructure and deconstruct U.S. military bases to return areas to their original state or reconfigure areas to hand off to Afghan forces.
During a community farewell ceremony Sunday morning, Hammonton City Mayor Steve DiDonato presented the city and the state’s flag to the unit.
DiDonato said the flags were a symbol of home for the unit.
“Thank you to all the families who are half-heartbroken this morning, but know this is the right thing. Godspeed and may you come home safe,” DiDonato said as he presented the flags to the unit.
Buses with 113 National Guard members were escorted by the Hammonton Police Department escorted motorcycle group riders the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst main gate.
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