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thedrifter
04-08-06, 08:34 AM
Back from Iraq, safely and joyously

By MADISON PARK
The Orange County Register

SEAL BEACH – For Craig Thomas Jr., it started with a high school pact that led him to the Marine Corps and then to Iraq. Thursday afternoon, the Laguna Niguel resident was back home, his family's long history of wartime service extended by another generation.

When the lanky 20-year-old lance corporal saw his parents, his eyes brimmed with tears. He scooped his mother into his arms and spun her in a circle. He couldn't help but smile a wide, toothy grin as his family swarmed him.

Amid a sea of homemade banners and American flags, friends and loved ones welcomed back 125 Marine reservists to the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station. For six months, the unit had guarded detention centers in Al Anbar, one of the most contentious regions in Iraq.

Everyone in the 5th Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment returned safely. There was only one injury - minor - during the six-month tour of duty.

It was the first time the entire Seal Beach battalion had been deployed in more than 60 years.

"The nation hasn't needed us since World War II," Maj. Wade Feller said. "We were glad to have the opportunity and that we're able to bring everybody home."

About 120 Marines arrived Monday night in Seal Beach.

For months, families and friends waited - sometimes during sleepless nights and sometimes in agony - for e-mails and an occasional telephone call.

"I've missed him so much. I can't wait. I can't wait," said Cheryl Brooks of Torrance, fighting back tears and clenching a ball of tissues as she awaited her son's arrival.

As the Marines got off buses, foghorns blared and families let out deafening cheers. There was unrestrained joy as husbands, sons and brothers were showered with bear hugs, flowers, balloons and silly string.

Lance Cpl. Franco Hernandez of Duarte cradled his 3-month-old son, Travis, for the first time and said, "Right here - this little guy kept me going."

Six months stretched into an eternity for some of the homesick soldiers.

"It's surreal," Thomas said. "It was a period in my life that seemed like forever. It's finally over!"

Thomas and two friends from Aliso Niguel High School joined the Marines together. One dropped out for medical reasons and the other, Kyle Russel, is in Iraq.

Thomas comes from a long line of military service. His father, Craig, served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. His grandfather was in World War II. His great-grandfather served under Gen. John Pershing during World War I. And, his father said, one ancestor fought in Lexington during the colonial days.

And now, his sister, Kristen, 18, has enlisted in the Marine Corps and will start boot camp this summer.

Thomas has four years left with the Marines.

His mother, Susan, said he will probably have to deploy again, "and we realize that. He wanted to have a job that would make a difference. A lot of men wonder if they make a difference, but Marines never have that problem."

CONTACT US: (714) 445-66 or mpark@ocregister.com

Ellie