Spouses, children, grandparents and in-laws flanked the runway at Mather Air Force Base on Tuesday morning as 50 members of the California Army National Guard deployed for a mission to western Afghanistan.
The families clustered in groups of three or four, clutched smartphones and cameras and watched as their loved ones boarded six Black Hawk helicopters bound for Fort Hood, Texas.
Alex Fenwick, 13, wore a monkey beanie and held to her mom after saying goodbye to dad, Mike, who deployed for his first time.
"We were hoping it wouldn't happen," said Alex's mother, Bernadette Fenwick, 43, who retired from a military career.
The California National Guard held a ceremony for the departing soldiers at the base Monday, but family members formed a perimeter along the Mather runway as helicopter blades buzzed in anticipation of takeoff.
Helicopters will be central to the mission of the California Army National Guard's Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment specializing in aerial medical evacuations, 1st Lt. Jan Bender said.
"Many of the crew chiefs, flight medics and pilots have civilian skills that give them an advantage," he said. "They're EMTs, they're firefighters, they're medics."
The soldiers will train for about two months at Fort Hood before a year-long stint in Afghanistan. The California unit will join 50 other soldiers from Washington and Nevada in airlifting the wounded from western Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address that the United States will withdraw half of its 68,000 troops in Afghanistan in a year.
Robert Wright, 34, of Ione deployed on his fourth tour, and his wife and son took pictures of the Black Hawk helicopters taxiing down the runway.
"He'd been training the boy to take over all the man duties of the house," said Laura Wright with 13-year-old son Kode at her side in a San Francisco Giants sweatshirt. "You gotta stay in contact and just hope that he'll come home safe."
Cody Weaver, a 26-year-old from Lincoln, joined his dad and brother in military service, according Cody's father, Mike Weaver.
"I just got back from Afghanistan," Mike said, bouncing his 1-year-old grandson on his hip. "I don't think we need to be doing this anymore."
The six helicopters roared to their loudest, sending gravel and hats flying in a gusts. They gradually lifted off the Mather runway and flew a loop around the base.
"I always like to watch them take off because I don't get to see him that often," said 13-year-old Matthew Dahl, who watched his father, Bill, leave for his third tour. Matthew's 19-year-old sister, Stephanie, said they plan to chat with their dad via webcam.
The helicopters flew in a single-file line one last time over the families positioned at Mather. Spouses, children, in-laws and grandparents snapped pictures, wiped tears and waved goodbye. Helmeted soldiers peeking out of windows waved back.
Call The Bee's Dan Hill, (916) 321-1067.