View Full Version : Miramar volunteers fill in for families of returnees

05-12-03, 10:25 AM
Miramar volunteers fill in for families of returnees

By Jeanette Steele

May 10, 2003

Amid the tearful hellos and waving signs, some Marines from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 232 returned yesterday to no faces smiling just for them.

Well, almost none.

Miramar Marines Corps Air Station is making an effort to welcome single Marines returning from the war in Iraq. Base officials have recruited volunteers from around the base to be "official huggers" at the myriad homecomings during the next few weeks.

Wearing "Official Hugger" signs, the volunteers look for young Marines who shyly walk past the giddy families. The Marines are easy to spot. They often stand in clumps like wallflowers at a high school dance.

"We just want someone there to let them know that we thank them, and we're thinking about them, and we're glad to have them back," said Alisa Hertzler, coordinator of the base's Single Marine Program.

The Marines looked a little surprised. Their stoic faces broke into puzzlement when Hertzler and her recruits appeared, offering a hearty hug and a "welcome back."

Lance Cpl. Jon Free, 20, laughed afterward. "I really didn't expect that," he said.

Like many young, single Marines yesterday, Free said doesn't expect a real welcome until he is allowed leave in a month so he can return to his home in Wisconsin.

Still, he felt some of the cheering and waving was for him and his ordnance technician buddies, who stood together in the squadron hangar while waiting to be issued keys to their barracks rooms. They had modest goals for their first day back: Get their cars out of storage, rent some movies, buy some beer and relax.

"It's not so bad; it's just nice to be back," Free said. "You've got the close friends that you made out there. Coming back here, you just all stay together. You pretty much have your family here."

About 145 Marines from the "Red Devils" squadron returned yesterday. Deployed about four months, the F/A-18 unit was one of three Miramar fighter jet squadrons to fly combat missions over Iraq from an air base in Kuwait. They lived in tents and sweated through more than 100-degree temperatures while supporting sometimes round-the-clock flights.

Lance Cpl. Kristy Callis took the homecoming a little hard. Her eyes watered as she quickly wove through the crowd, she said. She found a corner and took a few breaths before rejoining the others. There was no way for her family in Nashville, Tenn., to make the trip.

"It's kind of half and half. You're kind of sad that your family's not here, but you're happy to be (back,)" said Callis, a 20-year-old avionics electrician. "I know our time is coming up, and we'll be home. I don't really consider this home."

Nothing could dampen Cpl. John Patterson's enthusiasm to be home and out of the desert. He had not even called his family in Little Rock, Ark., to tell them he returned.

"It's great to just be back," the 22-year-old avionics technician said. "I'll get my wheels out here in a second, and my room. We've been staying in tents, so that will be great. I really don't need anybody to be happy right now."

As they boarded buses to the barracks, the single Marines didn't know they had a little treat ahead of them. Some spouses and parents of squadron members had made up the bunks of the dorm-like rooms a few days before.

So, instead of bare mattresses, the Marines found new pillows, freshly washed sheets, a comforter and an extra blanket, in case it's cold, said Tori Ehlert, one of the organizers. Her husband is a veteran pilot in the squadron.

Ehlert said it's "kind of heartbreaking" to think of a lonely homecoming.

"People do worry about their mentality, because it's such a high to such a low," she said. "We want to make sure they don't have a major letdown."

Jeanette Steele: (760) 476-8244; jen.steele@uniontrib.com