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thedrifter
04-24-07, 07:26 AM
Soon, 124th Marines will be home - After 7 months in Iraq, they are back in the U.S.
Updated: 4/23/2007 4:01:43 PM

TWENTYNINE PALMS, CALIF. - Salutes, softball and a brass band - the 124th Marine Reserves are back in America.

"You're on the bus from the air base and you look out the window and - wow! We're home," said Cpl. Steven Oliver, 23, of Plymouth.

After seven months of patrolling and fighting in and around Fallujah, the unit headquartered at Selfridge Air National Guard Base returned in a series of flights leading to Twentynine Palms, the sprawling base in the Mojave Desert where it trained for its mission to Iraq.

And along the way the Marines, whose deployment has been chronicled as Michigan's Band of Brothers in the Free Press, saw that America is glad to see them and other troops returning from Iraq.

Veterans arrived to salute and shake their hands during 3 a.m. layovers in Bangor, Maine.

Laura Froehlich, 58, who has personally sent off and greeted home more than 175,000 troops, hugged the Weapons and Charlie Company members at March Field in Riverside, Calif.

The Marines emerged from the plane after nearly a full day of flying, red-eyed and tired, but even the overcast, chilly weather couldn't dim their grins.

They were greeted by commanding officer Col. Harold VanOpdorp and they juggled their weapons and bags in order to shake hands. Emergency vehicles serenaded them with sirens and fire trucks saluted them with arches of water.

There have been no plans announced for redeployment, but Reservists who remain in the Corps could be called to serve another tour.

But this week, there will be picnics and softball tournaments to pass the time until they fly back to Michigan on Sunday and disperse to their company bases at Selfridge, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Saginaw and Perrysburg, Ohio.

But it won't be all hurrahs and hellos. During their seven months in Iraq, snipers, booby traps, ambushes and hidden bombs took a toll on men and nerves. The unit of more than 1,000 men had 22 members die and about 45 others so severely wounded they could not return to action. At least four of those injured lost limbs.

A good portion of the week goes to screening and sessions to ease the transition from combat back to civilian life. Just as they were tuned, screened and prepped before shipping out to Iraq, returning Marines go through a multistage demobilization.

"Our No. 1 concern is to make sure our Marines are taken care of psychologically, medically, administratively and financially," said Maj. Christopher Kolomjec.

Some of the men have accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in active combat pay and are being counseled to handle it wisely and avoid spending sprees when they get home.

Officials say they want to make sure the Marines reintegrate slowly and smoothly into a slower-paced civilian life because they have come from an extraordinarily high-stress situation, where each decision could have dire consequences.

"In Iraq, everything was all laid out for us," said Cpl. Nick Smith, 26, of Toledo. "It's like going from being a 6-year-old to an adult, making decisions we'll be held accountable for."

In Iraq, they often lived in makeshift quarters, working 18-hour days and lugging 60 pounds of body armor, weapons and ammo wherever they went. Marines like Lance Cpl. Shane Peltier of Bad Axe want to sleep late under their own roofs, play with their dogs and flat-out relax.

This week, the Marines also will receive advice on reuniting with family members. Just as they've changed and grown, so have their families during their absences. Wives and girlfriends may have assumed new responsibilities, and children have grown and matured.

Much of the counseling is going to focus on taking things slowly and giving everyone time to get reacquainted.

Or in some cases, maybe to meet a new family member. Sgt. Martin Gonzales, 30, of Saginaw is eager to get home.

"I have a baby that was due two days ago. I think she's holding back till I get there," he said.

The Marines want the men to be as successful in their home life as they were on their tour of Iraq. Service members can ask for additional counseling to deal with potential problems or experiences that they had in Iraq.

"We've learned a lot of lessons from the Vietnam era," said Kolomjec, 38, of Grosse Pointe Farms. "The men are going from what can be an overly disciplined environment to one of almost unlimited choices. We want to make sure people are able to cope successfully going from one extreme to another."

The Marines also will receive medical evaluations.

Navy Capt. Lee White, a doctor attached to the 1/24th during its deployment, said the "biggest concern is spotting injuries and conditions incurred in the line of duty and getting them documented to make sure they get the care they need when they get home."

And getting home is what counts.

"Once we pulled up in Bangor and I saw all those veterans lined up waiting for us, it felt good," said Sgt. Richard Bonner, 24, of Detroit. "It felt like a job well done."

Contact JOE SWICKARD at 313-222-8769 or jswickard@freepress.com.

Ellie