FORT HOOD, Texas – Just minutes after saying goodbye to his four children and a pregnant, sobbing wife, Spc. Richard Hughes found himself in line for a smallpox vaccination in an Army gymnasium, where the heavy metal strains of Metallica offered some respite from sadness.
Hughes and many other soldiers with the 4th Infantry Division said their sorrow, their worries and even some of their jitters about being deployed to Kuwait evaporated temporarily Tuesday when they entered the gym, throbbing with the energy and music of a high school pep rally.
It's Fort Hood's unique version of what's called a manifest site -- the final stop before soldiers board planes to war.
While an officer shouted instructions into a microphone, a DJ spun tunes in a glass room above the bleachers. Soldiers passed the time playing cards and video games, and some moved to the music.
"When I was on the bus over to the gym, I just prayed for God to give me strength," said Hughes, a wiry 20-year-old. The high-energy music at the send-off, he said, "just makes me feel a little more comfortable."
Guns on their shoulders, and canteens dangling from their desert camouflage uniforms, hundreds of soldiers prepared for war to the rhythms of hip-hop, swing, salsa and adrenaline-infusing rock tunes like "Eye of the Tiger."
As they took care of last-minute preparations such as getting vaccines, equipment and final orders, some watched sports on TV and munched on catered hamburgers and pizza.
It's a send-off unmatched by any other Army post, said Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Green, who helped implement it for this year's deployment.
"Nobody else does it like this here," said Green, who runs the show. "This is the first time in my 30-year (Army) history that I've ever seen anything like this done for soldiers."
Green keeps things moving by announcing instructions from a microphone over the music. With the vigor of a Baptist preacher -- he's the son of a bishop and brother of four preachers -- Green even manages to provoke applause and a few "hooahs" from soldiers after he announces the procedure for getting smallpox shots.
"We keep it jumpin'!" he tells the soldiers seated on rows of bleachers. "So if you want to read, you have to go into that quiet room over there."
The scene is a sharp contrast to manifest sites of the past and at other posts, where soldiers may remain locked for more than a day in cold, gloomy buildings eating prepackaged rations -- or MREs for "meals ready to eat" -- and looking forward to their one allotted shower.
"We were just sitting there with MREs and nothing to do," said Lt. Col. Hampton Mabry, remembering his December 1990 deployment for Desert Storm.
"It used to be depressing. You don't send a solider off like that," Green said.
He is proud of the results at Fort Hood.
"Look at them laughing and smiling around here. We're successful," he said. "They're not thinking about what's happened to them and what they're going to face. ... For at least an hour and a half of their life, they're going to have a good time."
Spc. James Callahan, 33, of Las Vegas, was so charged by the atmosphere he let out a cheer as his smallpox vaccination was complete.
"I might as well start up right now before I get on the plane," he said.
In the role of DJ, Spc. Christopher Carrasquillo said he was careful not to play any "sad music," instead favoring tunes that pumped the spirits of soldiers facing war.
"Every once in a while someone will get up and dance when they hear something they like," he said.
His co-DJ, commercial entertainment coordinator Brent Pierson, said he and the others who spin CDs for around-the-clock deployments take great care to play music that appeals to a diverse group of soldiers.
"Out there in that crowd you have everything from contemporary Christian fans to hard rock head-bangers," he said.
When the song "Dancing with Myself," came on, Spc. Rachelle Hoyt of Sacramento, Calif., was compelled to do just that. Moving to the music helped settle some of the butterflies the 24-year-old felt about her first deployment. Nothing could make her forget what awaits her in Iraq, she said, but the few hours at the gym helped her cope a little better.
Playing a hand of cards, Sgt. 1st Class Lymell Marzett, 36, of Oklahoma City, was impressed with the atmosphere.
"They didn't have anything like this when I was deployed before," he said. "This is just as good as coming back."