Sue Johnson knew the departure day was coming. She'd been through this when her husband was deployed to Iraq in 2009.
But the past experience proved little comfort to Johnson, of Turnersville, as she spent the last few minutes with her husband in the shade of trees, before he joined his unit for a farewell ceremony Wednesday at Doughboy Field at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
"I don't think you can prepare for this," said Johnson, 47. "I just take it one day at a time."
Staff Sgt. Richard Johnson is one of more than 450 members of the New Jersey Army National Guard who will leave Friday for final training at Fort Bliss, Texas, then head to Qatar as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The soldiers of the First Battalion of the 114th Infantry represent the largest deployment of Guard troops since 2008, when 2,800 from the state served in the 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Iraq.
They come from the Mount Holly, Woodbury, and Freehold armories, and from all 21 counties of the state, to provide security for a U.S. base where military equipment from Afghanistan is being stored during the drawdown of forces there.
About 174 soldiers, or one-third, of the unit are from Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties. An additional 66 are from Ocean and Monmouth Counties.
"I know today is the day," said Sue Johnson, who was with daughter Kiersten, 21, and granddaughter Emerie, 2. "It's hard saying goodbye.
"The first [deployment] was hard because he went to Iraq and was in a pretty dangerous spot," she said. "I tried not to watch the news."
Now, the couple will be apart for a year.
"I wouldn't say this [time] is easier," said Richard Johnson, 48, who works as a millwright for SEPTA. "I'm not really looking forward to separation from family, but I know there is a job I have to do.
"You just suck it up," said Johnson, who has been in the Guard for 22 years. "I'm fulfilling my obligation and responsibility."
With battles raging in Iraq, his wife said, she knows "anything can happen and his time could be extended - and that he could even be rerouted there, which I hope and pray to God he won't."
That seems unlikely at this point. "It drove me nuts when I didn't hear from him" when he was in Iraq, said Sue Johnson. "You always fear the worst. This one, he assures me, is a safer mission."
As the soldiers assembled on the field into three individual companies, hundreds of wives, children, parents, and other family members watched from covered seating. Some dabbed tears from their eyes and perspiration from brows as patriotic music played.
Though the Guard members looked alike in their uniforms and hats, Marisol Dunlap, 50, of Williamstown, could easily pick out her husband, Marco, an E-4 specialist. He had been deployed during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq.
"It was more difficult then," said Dunlap, who sat next to her son, Marco Jr., 19. "But it's always emotional."
The couple's daughter, Erika Sipp, 24, and her husband, Marine Staff Sgt. Aaron Sipp, 28, both of West New York, N.J., came to the ceremony with their 8-month-old baby boy.
"My father and I have always been close," said Erika Sipp. "He went to Desert Storm when I was a baby.
"This will be hard, but I will try to get by."
The 114th stood silently in the humidity and scorching sun as Brig. Gen. Michael L. Cunniff, adjutant general of New Jersey, spoke. The deployment is the second largest of Guard troops in New Jersey since World War II.
"These brave soldiers stand ready to leave the comforts of home, to defend the nation and its interests aboard," he said. They are "representing New Jersey's 21 counties" and are "prepared for this deployment."
Cunniff praised the relatives and friends for their support. "Our families have time and time again proven that they are the backbone of our military," he said. "The support you provide to your loved ones demonstrates your commitment.
"We're all in this together as a Guard family, and will come and celebrate the return of our Guard family in about a year," he said.
Kyle Flood, head coach of the Rutgers University football team, told the soldiers that the "Rutgers football family will be thinking about you and will be praying for you while you are defending the greatest nation on God's Earth."
The time away from loved ones was on the mind of the unit's commander, Lt. Col. Frederick Pasquale, as he addressed the soldiers.
"Deployment is tough," he said. "It's tough for the soldiers, it's tough for the families they leave behind."
He asked them not to waver on their values "that make us what we are" and challenged them: "114th, strike hard!"
After Chaplain Carl E. Ellwood Jr. offered a benediction that called on God to "hasten our journey home," the soldiers and their families reunited briefly for a picnic at the nearby pavilion.
Marisol Dunlap wiped tears from her eyes as she was joined by her husband. "I feel prepared for this," he said. "I just want to spend time with my family now."
On the field, Guard member John Dowd II, 20, of Barnegat, was spending the last few moments with his girlfriend, Megan Maffei, 19, and his father, John, both also from Barnegat.
"No matter what you do, this is not easy," said Maffei. "I'll be watching the news more."
"I'm a little nervous, but I feel prepared 100 percent," said John Dowd II, an Ocean County College student who has been studying criminal law enforcement and wants to be a state trooper. "Whatever happens, happens."
The deployment "will be good for him," said his father. "It's a learning experience."
Nearby, Cpl. Christopher Carr, 23, of Cherry Hill, was sitting with family in the shade of a tree. Qatar will be his first deployment.
"I'm looking forward to it," said Carr, who hopes to eventually enter law enforcement. "You just don't like to leave family and miss holiday events and graduations."
He was joined by his girlfriend, Alicia Waltz, 20; his brother, Air Force Airman First Class Alex Newton, 21, who flew in from San Antonio, Texas, for the ceremony; and his mother, Jamie Norris, 42, and her husband, Don Norris Sr.
The separation "is hard, but you have to be hopeful," said Waltz, of Haddon Township.
"There's been a lot of praying," said Jamie Norris. "You have to have a lot of faith.
"This is what they are trained to do."