Saturday, April 22, 2006

My Local Heroes Begin Returning Home!

This post is delayed a couple days - I wanted to leave my memorial birthday tribute for Sgt. Mike Stokely up top for a few days. However - it is an eerie coincidence that Georgia's 48th Brigade began returning home - and the first planes touched down in Savannah - on his birthday! One of those airplanes contained one of his very best childhood friends - a sweet hero that our family had the privilige of "adopting" for a few months! He and his wife & baby are supposed to come over here for dinner at some point this summer - I can't wait! :) However, on the flip side, this time, moreso than ever before, the incredible elation and joy at the Return of The Heroes was tinged with very real sorrow for those who did not make it back ~ I am more keenly aware of this harsh reality more than ever before. What is it the Bible says? "Weep wtih those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice." Can one rejoice and weep with sorrow at the same time? (answer: Yep.)

Anyway, below is an article from the about the return of the very first of our Local Heroes. The rest should be home within the next few weeks - including Outlaw & platoon!!

Keep everyone in your prayers y'all -- those who are coming home, the families of those who are not, those who are still recovering from phyisical injuries sustained while over there, and all of them, who, to one extent or another, will be dealing with the emotional fallout from being in combat for the rest of their lives... I heard on the radio the other day that virtually every member of the 48th - and there are at least 4,000 of them - have seen combat in some form or another now.

Welcome home to our heroes. Thank you for all you've done - we appreciate you and are proud of you. We kept you all close in our prayers as you were deployed this past long year ~ we will continue to keep you all close in our prayers as you return home and re-adapt to society.

I can’t believe it’s finally over’

Savannah —The first plane carrying the main body of Georgia’s citizen soldiers home from Iraq touched down at Hunter Army Airfield here at 8:25 p.m. Wednesday — seven time zones and a world away from the violence of the war zone.

Several soldiers of the Georgia National Guard’s 48th Brigade Combat Team, still clad in rumpled camouflage and dusty boots, fell to their knees and kissed the concrete tarmac.

“I can’t believe I’m home. I can’t believe it’s finally over,” said Capt. Mike Cannon, commander of Lawrenceville-based Alpha Company of the 121st Infantry Regiment’s 1st Battalion.

Gov. Sonny Perdue and his wife, Mary, shook each soldier’s hand as he or she stepped off the plane.

“Welcome back. Thanks for everything. Great to see you. Glad you’re back on Georgia soil,” Perdue said as the soldiers filed past.

The chartered World Airways MD-11 jet carried about 300 soldiers, most of them members of infantry companies based in Gainesville and Lawrenceville.

Ray Gastor of Savannah, a 63-year-old Vietnam veteran and USO volunteer at the airfield, was among those who greeted the returning soldiers.

“When they’re going, it’s emotional. There’s a lot of trepidation. Now that they’re home, it’s just joy and relief,” said Gastor, who also bade the 48th farewell last May.

Another group of several hundred 48th soldiers is expected to arrive here this morning. Flights will continue to flow through here over the next three weeks. Most of the brigade’s 4,400 soldiers are expected to be back in Georgia by mid-May, ending the unit’s first combat deployment since World War II.

“We went through this as a team, not as individuals,” said Lt. Col. Joe Hoffman, a veteran of the recent deployment who returned early to coordinate the brigade’s homecoming. “It won’t be over until everyone’s home.”

About 200 family members and friends of the 48th soldiers, who spent a year of worry and uncertainty while supplying their loved ones with an unending flow of letters, sweets, DVDs and prayers, waited for them at Fort Stewart, about 40 miles southwest of the port city.

Throughout their final day of waiting, family members and supporters decorated a grassy parade ground on the base — the same spot where they said their tearful goodbyes last May — with flags, yellow ribbons and signs cheering home their loved ones.

Jeannie Cameron of Cumming was among the first family members to arrive in Hinesville, home of Fort Stewart, pulling in about 2 a.m. Wednesday to help others prepare for the big day.

Like several other parents, Cameron decided to leave her children at home. She worried her 3-year-old son, Roger, and 5-year-old daughter, Sydney, would not understand why their father couldn’t come home immediately.

Sgt. Roger Cameron Jr. must stay at Fort Stewart with the rest of his unit for several more days to turn in equipment and wrap up personnel issues. Jeannie Cameron also wants to give her husband time to decompress.

“Having the children jumping all over him would be kind of a concern,” said Cameron, 30. “We just decided to wait until he comes home for good to do the reunion.”

Other parents decided to keep their young children home because of the lateness of the soldiers’ arrival or because those of school age are required to take standardized tests this week.

But Brandy LeBrescu came with her 19-month-old daughter, Makayla and 4-year-old son, Damien. The three sat on a motel bed and watched cartoons, eagerly awaiting the return of Spc. Chris LeBrescu, a former Marine from Kathleen.

As he watched television, Damien sorted through the multicolored rubber worms in the fishing tackle box he sleeps with. He said he wants to go fishing with his father again once he comes home.

Just outside their motel room door in the trunk of their Honda Accord was a stack of homemade blue and red signs sprinkled with glitter. The signs proclaimed: “Welcome Home Daddy. We Love You.” Makayla scribbled brown and blue squiggles on one.

LeBrescu said it was a struggle caring for both children while her husband was away.

“It’s been fairly difficult. I’m kind of outnumbered,” she said as Damien played with their motel room phone and Makayla yanked tissues out of a dispenser near the sink. “This is why I need another parent.” Her troubles were compounded when her 20-year-old brother died in an auto accident last April. Her paternal grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer two months later.

Brandy and Chris were high school sweethearts in Warner Robins. They married just before he left for training at Fort Stewart. Since he left, she said, she has worn a silver pendant around her neck that says, “Half of My Heart is in Iraq.”

On their way to long-anticipated reunions at the base, those waiting passed an orchard of flowering trees, each planted in honor of a Fort Stewart soldier killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Twenty-six of the living monuments shading “Warrior Walk” bear the names of 48th Brigade soldiers lost during this deployment. More than 200 were wounded.

Hoffman said those who served with the 48th have formed unbreakable bonds with fellow soldiers. “No one who was there will ever forget the faces of the Iraqis or the people they served with,” Hoffman said. “Those experiences, those people, will always be with you.”

While the cities and towns the soldiers patrolled for nearly a year are still in the throes of a violent insurgency, the Georgia soldiers say they take pride in the personal sacrifices they and their families made to perform their duties.

“Our soldiers can all point to some tangible good they did in Iraq,” Hoffman said. “They performed extremely well and honorably. They did their utmost to protect the people around them. They did everything we asked of them and more.”

— Dave Hirschman reported from Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Jeremy Redmon from Fort Stewart.

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