Well before many alarm clocks had begun ringing Wednesday, about 40 members of Lodi's California National Guard unit were dressed in battle dress uniform, preparing to leave for what could be as many as 18 months in Iraq.
They gathered at 6 a.m. at the armory on North Washington Street, where family members fought back tears and tried to smile.
Though it's Sgt. Thomas Lane's first deployment, he has 19 years of military experience. His girlfriend of three years, Shelly Groen, has no military background and no family nearby.
"I was just sitting at my desk thinking, what am I going to do tonight?" Groen said later Wednesday from her job at Blue Shield in Lodi, adding that she may take a photography class or even a second job just to stay busy.
Groen is proud of Lane and said she has learned to just take things one step at a time.
Lane and other members of the 1st Battalion of the 143rd Field Artillery headed first to Camp Roberts in Paso Robles. From there, they'll head to Fort Dix in New Jersey, where they'll train for about two months before heading to Kuwait and finally to Iraq, said Staff Sgt. Richard Madrid.
They'll probably be gone 12 months, he said, but that's not certain. As it is, the troops they're replacing have had their overseas service extended by four months.
Madrid, of Lodi, recently had knee surgery that disqualified him from going with the unit, something that saddens him.
"It's tough to see them leave because you build this bond," said Madrid, who's been in the military for more than 20 years. "Those are my boys."
The years-long Iraq war is the subject of unending debates - some of them dividing Congress. Family members of the troops acknowledge that soldiers die every day overseas.
For Chet Somera, whose son Chris Somera was one of those who left Lodi on Wednesday, there's natural concern because he's a father, but he has no doubts about the reason his son is going to Iraq.
"They are going over there for a noble cause," he said. "We're all in this world together and if people are not being treated right, if weapons are being developed, we need to go over there and help. A lot of people are being terrorized over there."
The soldiers won't arrive overseas for several months, but when they get to Kuwait, the temperature will likely reach 140 degrees, said Madrid, who has a friend stationed there.
Training in New Jersey won't exactly resemble the Middle East deserts, but the soldiers will sleep in tents rather than barracks to help them get used to the living arrangements, Groen said.
Lodi's California National Guard unit is joining with soldiers
from Sacramento, Richmond, Walnut Creek and Santa Maria.
They'll meet at Camp Roberts in Paso Robles, where they'll stay until June 9.
From Camp Roberts, the troops will head to Fort Dix in New Jersey for roughly two months of training.
The soldiers will then fly to Kuwait, and then on to Iraq, where they'll be split up, but Lodi's unit will stay together.
- News-Sentinel staff.
Groen said she hopes she'll be able to see her boyfriend at some point in between, but she knows nothing is certain.
The troops will get two weeks of leave at some point, Madrid said, but traveling eats up some of that time. It took a military friend of his three days to travel each way from Iraq, meaning that he was left with eight days to spend with family and friends.
Their exact mission is classified and also subject to change, Madrid said, but their Fort Dix training will focus on infantry tactics, since the Lodi troop is an artillery unit. In layman's terms, Groen said, that means the soldiers are used to big guns but will likely be using smaller guns overseas.
She and Somera both said separately that the Lodi unit has plenty of training, and that's not a concern. Groen said her boyfriend is ready.
"As weird as it may sound, we both were excited, we're scared, we're nervous," she said. "This is what he got into the army for."