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thedrifter
03-23-08, 09:38 AM
Families, Patriot Guard at airport to welcome Marines after Iraq tour
BY BRENT D. WISTROM
The Wichita Eagle

Preston Black and his 2-month-old daughter, Toni Rae, saw each other for the first time Saturday. It was at the airport, and cameras were everywhere trying to capture him and the other 11 U.S. Marine Corps reservists as they reunited with their families a day before Easter.

Dressed in a sharp white shirt and blue jeans, Black walked straight into his wife's arms as about 65 people cheered and other travelers squeezed by with less fanfare.

The other reservists, all of whom volunteered for their first deployment to Iraq, followed and met their families.

Black and his wife, Brittany, hugged for about a minute.

And from then on, the 20-year-old from Hutchinson kept hugging Brittany and staring with smiles and bewilderment at the silent baby girl who had just begun growing in the womb before he left.

His mother and stepmother stood nearby holding red, white and blue balloons.

Everyone wanted to know how Black felt.

At first, he just said "amazing" and left it at that.

But after some of the cameras were gone and the clapping was over, he said he had a lot of anxiety about coming back after seven months in the Anbar Province of Iraq.

He had left behind his pregnant wife, a 16-year-old brother he is very close to and countless other relatives and friends.

"I've been waiting for this day since before I left," he said.

But, he said with a laugh, his first thought after getting off the plane at Wichita's Mid-Continent Airport was, "It's cold."

(It was about 52 degrees in Wichita, but was headed to 101 degrees in Anbar.)

Black's father, Charlie, had more complex feelings -- both before Preston deployed and as he returned.

Charlie said he has been watching and reading news constantly. He missed Preston and, even as he stood in the airport lobby waiting, he wasn't sure what to expect.

"I wonder how he's going to adjust. I wonder how he has changed. It's just a lot of wondering," he said.

As for the war, now in its sixth year, Charlie said his feelings have not changed.

"It's a mess," he said. "But regardless of what kind of mess it is, we need to clean it up. People can argue all day long about whether we should be there or not. But we are there now, and we need to do the right thing, with respect to the Iraqi people as well as our own."

But the word "war" was not heard much in the airport. It was more about hugs and tears and smiles and small talk.

Kids walked around with cardboard posters carrying messages such as "God Bless Our Soldiers" and "We Missed You."

More than a dozen Patriot Guard members formed a hallway within a hallway for the soldiers to walk through and be recognized.

Marine reservist James Bondley stood near the front of the pack, posing for photos with Patriot Guard members and a large flag that read, "Welcome Home. We're Proud of You."

"It's very much overwhelming," Bondley said. "It means a lot. I don't think any of us were expecting this."

But the reception is just what a Marine should be able to expect, said Tom Huxtable, commandant of the local Marine Corps League.

Marines are brothers, he said, and they should get "absolute and positive support."

"It's the way it is," he said. "It's the way it has always been."

Reach Brent D. Wistrom at 316-268-6228 or bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com.

Ellie