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thedrifter
04-13-06, 09:14 AM
Marines return to Miramar and loved ones

By: STACY BRANDT - Staff Writer

MIRAMAR ---- A jumbo jet carrying about 260 Marines taxied to a terminal at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station on Wednesday morning, as cheers roared through a crowd of hundreds of friends and family members waving American flags and homemade signs to greet loved ones returning from a seven-month deployment in Iraq

"Welcome home dad," read the sign that 9-year-old Nick Hansen held for his father, Staff Sgt. Nathan Hansen.

"I feel really excited that he's coming home," Nick said, as the Marines started to leave the airplane and walk across the tarmac to an anxious and teary crowd at the San Diego air station.

The troops, who were deployed to Iraq in September, are part of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, most of them from the wing's Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 466, officials said.

Mechanic Stephen Stone was returning from his second deployment to Iraq. He had served there for seven months about two years ago.

Stone said he missed his wife and 3-year-old daughter, but was proud of what had been accomplished in the war-torn country.

"I believe in what we're doing over there," he said. "We're keeping the terrorists out of here."

Stone's wife, Amber, said she was also very proud of her husband, though it was difficult having him away from home since his daughter was born.

"I don't think you can be a military spouse and not be proud," Amber Stone said.

When she asked 3-year-old Bella if she was glad to have her father back, the child's shy smile was answer enough.

About 30 minutes after the troops got off the plane, Amy Demers said that welcoming back her boyfriend, Marine surgeon Alex Galifianakis, still seemed surreal.

"I'm glad he's home," she said.

Galifianakis said his experience in Iraq was much better than he expected.

"I think I'll continue to look back at the seven months that we were gone pretty fondly," he said.

Galifianakis said frequent e-mails from his loved ones helped him get through his deployment. That sentiment was echoed by many of the troops at the homecoming.

Matt Scardino, who returned home three weeks ago after a six-month deployment in Iraq, said he attended Wednesday's event as a way to show support for the war and the troops.

"I just hope America knows that we're doing our job," he said. "And we're doing it for them."

Scardino said he could empathize with the troops who were seeing their loved ones for the first time in months.

"Even though it's not me getting off and seeing my family," he said, "it puts tears in my eyes seeing those guys get to hug their wife and kids."

For Marines who didn't have any loved ones to greet them, there was a group of "official huggers" on hand, courtesy of the Marine Corps Community Services program.

"It's very heartwarming," said June Russell, one of the volunteers who offered hugs to any returning Marine who wanted one.

The volunteers said attending the homecoming was a way of showing support for the troops and their mission.

"It's fabulous because, my dad, when he came back from Vietnam, he just wanted a hug and affirmation," Theresa Dimapilis said. "These young kids are sacrificing a lot. To say 'thank you' means so much to them."

Sgt. Maj. William Winters, who was in Iraq with the Marines, said he was especially proud of those who were deployed for the first time.

"They worked hard, they worked a lot of hours and they never lost focus of the mission," he said. "When they see a reception like this, it makes it all worthwhile for them."

Contact staff writer Stacy Brandt at (760) 631-6622 or sbrandt@nctimes.com.

Ellie