Monday, November 5, 2007

Close, So Very Very Close!!

Alaska Paratroopers Return From Iraq
Anchorage Daily News
Published: November 5, 2007
A plane carrying an advance party of about 100 jubilant soldiers from the 4th Airborne Brigade Combat Team -- stationed in Iraq for more than a year -- landed on a snow-free tarmac at Elmendorf Air Force Base early this morning.

The arrival of the brigade’s “torch party” -- soldiers who’ll prepare the way for the eventual return of 3,500 Fort Richardson-based troops -- was the first of about 15 planeloads of paratroopers scheduled to land here through mid-December.

Also onboard the chartered Boeing 757 were about 25 aviators from the Alaska Army National Guard, returning home following a six-month deployment in Iraq.

After handing over their weapons in a nearby hangar, the members of the 4th Brigade were bused to a gymnasium at Fort Richardson, where they received a rousing welcome from families and friends.

Beyond a huge banner draped against an elevated boxing ring that proclaimed “Welcome Home, Spartans,” wives and children had plastered the gym with homemade signs:

“To Iraq and back!”

“Thank you, Heroes!”

“Welcome home, Daddy!”

The welcoming throng of about 200 people milled together for a couple of hours, anticipating the return of soldiers who’d initially deployed to Iraq in September and October of 2006. In the meantime, in some cases, baby sons and daughters had been born.

“I’m here to pick up my dad,” read the back of a T-shirt worn by 14-month-old Mason DeToy, who’d learned to walk while Sgt. Joel DeToy was deployed south of Baghdad.

Then at about 2:30 a.m., the buses arrived at the gym and the troops began streaming inside to a loud chorus of whoops and screams. The 9th Army brass band from Fort Wainwright launched into “God Bless America.”

Forming into ranks, the paratroopers were welcomed back to their home base by Col. Hazen Baron, the base chief of staff -- with remarks that were deliberately brief but mindful of the mishaps that sometimes befall bachelor soldiers who’ve been away from a city so long.

“If there is one thing I can tell you now you’re back in Alaska it’s: Be safe! Be safe! Be safe! ... Job well done, gents!”

With that, the troops were released from the ranks and those who were married walked toward their families while children and spouses dashed toward them from the opposite direction. Some of the husbands and wives fell into long, silent embraces.

“It’s the wives who are the real heroes,” said Staff Sgt. Jeff Holman, motioning to his own wife, Tanya -- who during his absence had given birth to a second daughter, 11-month-old Katelyn.

“She’s a helluva woman.”

The 30-hour flight home from the Middle East -- with stops in Germany, Ireland, New York and Minnesota -- was long but welcome, said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Willis of the 725th Support Battalion.

“No dust. No sand. I’m glad to be home,” Willis said.

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