View Full Version : First 'grunts' return from Iraq

05-26-03, 10:04 AM

First 'grunts' return from Iraq
Staff Writer
CAMP PENDLETON ---- Huddled together on a fold-out couch under blinding floodlights, flags and welcome banners, the three young wives hugged and let out giddy squeals when it was announced their husbands would be returning from war within the hour.

Oh my God! Oh my God! it's finally over," gasped Nicole Coleman, 27, when she found out her husband, Marine Sgt. Daniel Coleman, 28, had arrived at a nearby armory.

She and Leslie Huber, 26, and Debra Youngblood, 23, were among 150 family and friends who waited anxiously early Friday morning at Camp Horno at the northwestern end of Camp Pendleton for the 250 Marines of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment ---- the first wave of Camp Pendleton-based Marine infantrymen to return from the battlefields of Iraq.

While others returned earlier because of injuries sustained before, during and after their combat operations, the entire battalion survived the war. All its members were expected to arrive by late Friday night.

"We were blessed," said Navy corpsman Jim Ruiz, 44, of Oceanside, returning to the arms of his wife and two children Friday morning. "I'm so thankful for that."

Reunions private, emotional

The "Key Volunteers," a group of wives and mothers who support the troops and one another in their absence, decked out a small hall with red, white and blue balloons, banners and lots of food and drinks for the returning troops and their families.

Under intense floodlights set up in the dirt lot outside, the troops began arriving in ones and twos at about 3:20 a.m.

It was like a graduation ceremony under high beams, as each Marine walked from the armory across a small wooden bridge toward a semicircle of family and friends who strained to identify their Marines.

Most stood back and waited silently; many broke into tears as they spotted them. Marines squinted against the light to spot familiar faces.

"Oh! It feels good," said Cpl. Ernesto Vasquez, 22, as he lifted his daughter and glanced around at more than a dozen family and friends who drove from Rialto to greet him.

Holding bouquets, balloons and all proudly wearing white T-shirts with his picture on it that read "Happy safe return Cpl. Vasquez. We missed you," each of Vasquez's anxious relatives nudged in for their turn to hug him.

Some reunions were more intimate.

Crossing the dirt span without locating a loved one, Staff Sgt. Frank Scott was nearly bowled over when his girlfriend flung herself into his arms. He reached down and clutched her tightly, spinning her around and kissing her as one of her black pumps flew off.

The two only broke their embrace momentarily before slipping away from the crowd.

Most of the Marines of 3rd Battalion had been home for only a month after a seven-month deployment before being called back for service in Kuwait and Iraq.

Some of them had spent only a month of marriage with their new brides, or had known newborn children only weeks, or never before, making Friday's reunion a homecoming after nearly a year.

"Last time I was holding him he was in my palm," said Cpl. Matthew Huber, 27, of Michigan, choking up as he held his 18-month-old son, Matthew, in his arms. "He just walked to me for the first time. I've never seen him walk. It's amazing."

It was awkward for Sgt. James Regan, 27, of San Antonio, who knew his now 6-month-old daughter, Haley, for only a few weeks before deploying to the Persian Gulf in January.

"Here," he said with an uneasy smile, handing tiny Haley back to his wife, and shrugging. "I don't know how to do this yet."

Heather, his wife, said it would be hard for her family to adjust, but she was glad he was finally home.

"I know it's not always going to be this way ---- him gone all the time. It's been hard, but I'm really supportive of his career," she said just before he arrived. "If this is what he wants to do, I'll be there. We'll just have to raise Haley to be tough."

Finally having him right in front of her, she stood back a little, eyeing Regan cautiously from boonie cap to combat boot. "I'm still taking it all in," she said.

A long time gone

"Thundering Third" ---- as the battalion is known ---- landed in Kuwait in late February and trained in desolate desert camps until the ground campaign into Iraq was launched March 20.

As the lead infantry battalion in Regimental Combat Team-1, which included elements of the 4th Marine Regiment and 23rd Reserve Regiment, they pushed through guerrilla ambushes and ruling Baath Party strongholds in southern and eastern Iraq until they were called into Baghdad, which they entered by a historic amphibious river crossing across the Army Canal.

For about two weeks, they patrolled slums and wealthy neighborhoods on the eastern side of Baghdad, discovering and often destroying large ammunition and weapons caches in the process until they turned the areas under their watch over to the units of the U.S. Army on Easter Sunday.

Leaving Baghdad that night, they returned south, finally reaching the 1st Marine Division's command area outside the central Iraqi town of Diwaniya two days later, where they stayed for almost a month in sweltering heat.

Many said the heat, especially for the last week in Kuwait, was the worst part. The chance to escape the heat in an air-conditioned aircraft made the 36 hours of flying and layovers bearable, they said.

"There's nothing stressful about leaving 130-degree heat," said Staff Sgt. James Bowen, 26, of Chula Vista. Bowen said he was looking forward to a trip to Disneyland next week with his wife and two daughters, Anna, 8, and Samantha, 4. "No expense will be spared."

Transition could be rough

While they were warriors who fought their way to Baghdad and back, now they're home, where they will face the transition back to being fathers and sons, husbands and brothers.

A few Marines who had returned early as minor casualties or in small advanced parties recently acted like wiser older brothers to the newly returning Marines, warning them that the adjustment to civilian life and peace would not be easy.

Gunnery Sgt. Kevin Eckhoff, 39, of Sacket Harbor, N.Y., heartily hugged many of them, telling them to get a few hours of sleep and that he would be there for them when they were rested. He returned about halfway through the ground campaign to heal a leg injury, and has led the team of Marines preparing the barracks for the single Marines.

Gunnery Sgt. Wayne Hertz, 36, of Bismark, N.C., who returned with an advance party of 10 3rd Battalion Marines a week ago, said he has been taking it one day at a time and counting his blessings every chance he gets.

"My vow is to not complain about anything for 30 days," said. "I'm doing all right, I think."

He said the hardest part was seeing the effect his absence and return had on his wife, Teri, and children ---- Mollie, 7, and Matthew, 2.

"It's hard to flip that switch from warrior to daddy just like that. It's a big switch to flip," he said.

"All of the sudden Mollie's bringin' me to her classroom for show 'n' tell," he said. "And my son, he doesn't want me to be in uniform. I come home and he starts trying to take off my uniform. He says 'Daddy, no ship. No ship, Daddy.' That's tough. I have to confirm to him that I'm not going away anymore."

Hertz said some creature comforts made his personal transition a little easier, like treating himself to a new truck with the tax-free paychecks and combat pay he has received while overseas.

"I think it's been studied and proven that when a Marine comes home from war, he does one of two things: He gets married or he buys a truck," he said. "I got this baby loaded and I'm a happy man."

Hertz said the other returning Marines can expect great support in the local community.

He said amusement parks, car dealerships and local shops, bars and restaurants are handing out freebies and discounts to welcome them home.

"I went into Hollywood Video the other day. This young kid said, 'You a Marine? You just get back from Iraq?' When I said 'yes,' he said, 'Anything you want in here is free.' "

"The support is overwhelming," Hertz said. "I still can't believe it."

More 'grunts' returning

Lima is not the only Marine unit to return this weekend.

The rest of the 750 or so Marines from 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, arrived to separate celebrations late Friday night, and the 1,000 men of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, are slated to arrive today.

Many thousands more remain in Iraq or are on their way back on ships due in August.

Lt. Col. Lew Craparotta, battalion commander, said the Marines in his battalion will get a few days off before returning to work and beginning transitions to other assignments. At least 150 men will be leaving the Marine Corps altogether within a few weeks, he said.

Before the troops were released Friday, they were called into one final formation at about 5 a.m.

"This is going to be it," said Cpl. Ryan Carter, 22, of Wilmington, Del. "After this, they're going to scatter to the winds."

Excited Marines hustled from conversations and embraces and rushed to their ranks, standing ramrod straight at attention.

"Lima!" Hertz shouted from the front.

"Warriors!" the troops answered back with gusto.



Capt. Matt Reid had the final word before dismissing the exhausted troops from the war.

"Don't do anything to damage that pride you have inside. Take care of one another. Oorah gents!" he said, his voice cracking slightly as he called the company to attention for one last time. "Fall out!"

Contact staff writer Darrin Mortenson at dmortenson@nctimes.com.





05-26-03, 12:02 PM
Glad there home!!!!:D