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thedrifter
04-13-06, 08:13 AM
Welcome home, Marines
By MATTHEW WILDE and JEFF WILFORD, Courier Staff Writers

WATERLOO --- Kael Schoneman may not remember the first time he met his father. His family will have plenty of pictures and video to remind him.

Lance Cpl. Erik Schoneman will never forget.

"I wish I could have been there when he was born," Schoneman said.

He held his 6-month-old son in the terminal at Waterloo Regional Airport early Thursday, not long after leaving the plane that brought him and the other Marines from Waterloo's reserve unit home after serving in Iraq. Schoneman softly repeated "daddy's home," as Kale fussed.

The Marines' plane landed around 12:30 a.m., as more than 1,000 people waited anxiously to see their fathers, brothers, sons and husbands. An airport fire truck with emergency lights flashing escorted the chartered jet carrying the Marines to the tarmac. Welcome home banners covered the windows and fences.

It's been 10 months since the 121 Marines making up Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 14th Marines left Waterloo for active duty. After three months of training in California, the Marines spent the rest of the time guarding prisoners and performing military police work in Iraq. No one was hurt or killed in battle.

For Gunnery Sgt. Scot Slickers of Cedar Falls, escorting prisoners in the Al Anbar Province is already a fleeting memory. The reality of fatherhood set in quick.

Six hours after the plane touched down, his 1 1/2-year-old daughter, OIivia, was scheduled to have tubes surgically put in her ears.

"She got a lot bigger. It's pretty incredible," Slickers said while holding Olivia, who reached for her mother, Angie.

Slickers was a stay-at-home dad before the deployment, developing a special bond with his daughter. Now, after nearly a year away, the toddler is a mamma's girl. It's a reality he and other Marine fathers have to face after being gone for so long.

"She wasn't so much before, but she is now," Slickers said.

After watching her tough Marine husband toss his daughter in the air --- Scot smiling and Olivia giggling --- Angie couldn't help but shed a few tears. What promises to be a sleepless night and busy morning at the hospital is an afterthought.

Her husband of 4 1/2 years is home.

"This is awesome. It's absolutely incredible. Words can't describe it," Angie Slickers said.

Frank and Ophelia Lopez of Des Moines promised their son, Lance Cpl. Eric Lopez, they wouldn't go overboard in celebrating his return. He wanted to keep it low key.

The proud parents, two sisters, a brother and niece obliged somewhat. They only brought three signs --- one with his picture on it --- and decorated their van. When the Marine steps into his house, it will be filled with flags, balloons and a 4x8 welcome home banner.

After seven months of praying for his safe return, the Lopezes said they couldn't help themselves.

"We're just anxious to have him home," Ophelia said.

Normally the parents received a call or e-mail at least once a week. But occasionally, several weeks went by without a word.

"Then it was really stressful when you hear all the news of TV," Frank said, referring to roadside bombings and gun battles, just hoping Eric wasn't a part of it.

Former Marine Joel Snell of Cedar Falls didn't have any relatives returning, but felt compelled to come. He spent six years in the reserves, when the unit was known as Delta Battery. He was discharged shortly after the first Gulf War in 1991. He still has a few friends in the unit.

"I'm out here to see my boys home. Once a Marine, always a Marine," Snell said.

For some of the Marines, their deployment to Iraq was their last. The unit will be disbanding in September to comply with a federal base closure and realignment recommendation.

Depending on whether they have served long enough, the Marines will have the choice of leaving the military or transferring other reserve units.

Nikki Pierce, of Dunkerton, said her husband, Lance Cpl. Billy Pierce, will be leaving the Marines after four years of service.

"We're going to start a family, and I'm not sending him over there again," Nikki said. "I'm proud of what they're doing, but it's so hard to say good-bye again.

It was a tough decision, she said. "But he doesn't want to have to say good-bye again, either."

Pierce missed a lot while he was in Iraq. A nephew was born. A brother got married and is expecting a baby.

Nikki said she talked to her husband nearly every day while he was in Iraq. Holidays were the hardest for Nikki during the 10 months her husband was gone. Family helped, she said, "just being there every day. If I ever had a bad day, they were there to reassure me that he was okay --- keep my mind off of things."

Lance Cpl. Dustin Wiebold, 19, will probably stay in the Marines, said his mother, Beverly Belzer. She drove up from Conroy to meet her son at the airport.

Wiebold's two years of service isn't enough to leave the military, Belzer said, and he probably wouldn't leave even if he could.

"This was his dream, to be a Marine, to serve," Belzer said. Wiebold joined the Marines right out of high school in 2004. "He comes from a very military family. We can trace them back to the Civil War."

Wiebold may transfer to a Marine Reserve unit based in Des Moines, which is slated to be deployed in January, Belzer said. She believes it will be up to Wiebold to decide if he goes to Iraq with them, since his own deployment will have been so recent. "If he chooses to go back, I'll support him."

Erik Schoneman's wife, Maggie, said they were waiting to find out if he would be able to leave the Marines. He has also served two years.

They were engaged when Schoneman got his deployment orders, and moved their wedding date up so they could be married before he left.

Schoneman went to Iraq just a week-and-a-half before Kael was born. He was able to listen through a telephone connection in the delivery room.

For six months, Maggie was a single mother. She moved in with her parents. She and Erik had bought a house in Parkersburg before he left. Maggie, friends and family have been fixing it up while he was gone.

"We've had a lot of life changes over the last year," Maggie said. "It was a long road. We got through it."

For now, their plans are simple.

"Just get back to a normal lifestyle, get he and Kael adjusted to each other," Maggie said. "Get back to a normal lifestyle."

Schoneman sat down at the airport and bounced Kael on his knee, trying to calm the crying child. He gave his son a bottle.

Kael fell asleep, his tiny hand clutching his father's finger.

Contact Matthew Wilde at (319) 291-1579 or matt.wilde@wcfcourier.com. or Jeff Wilford at (319) 291-1423 or jeff.wilford@wcfcourier.com.

Ellie