In less than 24 hours, Nevada Army National Guard 1st Sgt. Benjamin Hopper would be boarding a flight on his way to Afghanistan for a fourth time. His military deployment felt familiar but not necessarily easier.
How could it?
Although his team — the Guard’s 3665th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company — is properly prepared for what the battlefield may bring, 10 months away from loved ones clearly takes a toll.
On Thursday morning, a brief mobilization ceremony in Las Vegas marked the beginning of the mission for Hopper and about 30 of his brothers and sisters in arms, who are based in Henderson.
Early today, they shipped off to Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel as America’s mission there approaches its 18th year. The company is the first the Nevada Army Guard has deployed in three years, while the military is preparing four more deployments from Nevada in the “upcoming months.”
Army Capt. Troy Dandrea, a military chaplain who presided over the ceremony and who deployed in 2016, spoke about what the traditional ceremony is like for those in attendance. The sinking feeling of missing is immediate for loved ones. Due to eagerness to get to the mission, the same sentiment in soldiers is delayed a few weeks.
The 3665th, founded in 2013, is the only bomb disposal team in Nevada. Its soldiers are specialists in defusing unexploded devices and weapons of mass destruction.
The farewell ceremony was brief, traditional and patriotic: a moment of silence, "The Star-Spangled Banner," the Army song. The soldiers, surrounded by their loved ones in a spacious room, stood at attention while their superiors provided words of encouragement and gratitude.
“When I reviewed your training records, what you guys go through, I can only imagine,” Army Brig. Gen. William Burks said. To the family members, he added, “Thank you for being here. And for the children here — especially — thank you for allowing your parents to go forward.”
It’s not easy saying goodbye, but “know that they will be back,” he noted.
One of those loved ones was Lauren Hopper, wife of the first sergeant, who during the ceremony held their small, white puppy, “Addie.” She was joined by her parents, and his mother, grandmother and sister.
Being married to Benjamin Hopper all but three years of his enlistment, Lauren Hopper finds solace in being there for spouses of service members who aren’t too familiar with the separation process. Instead of seeing it negatively, she said, “it’s more important to show other wives that it’s going to be OK.”
“It’s not about me, it’s about the company. I know that the guys need him there, so it makes it easier for me to tell him bye, you know?”
Afghanistan isn’t as bloody of a battlefield for U.S. troops as it was some years ago, but the dangers are still present, Benjamin Hopper said. The team’s mantra goes something like “mission success or total failure,” meaning that fatalities can still occur regardless of flawless work, he said.
About his military service and five total deployments, Hopper said, “I joined at 17. That’s all I know.” Asked about American civilians who may have forgotten their country is at war, he advised, “Let troops know that you support them … they appreciate it.”
Without hearing her husband say this, Lauren Hopper expanded. “Just to be mindful of it, realize that there are still some people that are going out there. To keep them in their prayers … People can be so forgetful, they get so caught up in politics and all this stuff and not realizing that there are still guys and girls that are out there fighting for their freedoms that they’ve kind of forgotten about.”