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thedrifter
01-26-09, 09:45 AM
MILITARY: Prayers answered as hundreds of local troops come home

By MARK WALKER - Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON ---- For Vista's Raul Montes, the last few months have been the hardest since his son, Robby, left for Iraq.

"Things have gotten better over there, but you never know," Montes said. "There's been a lot of praying and hoping he's doing well."

Montes' prayers were answered Sunday when his son, a Navy corpsman, arrived home along with more than 400 Marines and sailors from the base's Regimental Combat Team 5.

The troops were more than fours late after fog delayed their plane's arrival, but for the several hundred family members of returning troops and many of their fellow Marines who came to greet them, it was worth the wait.

"I'm so glad they have a 'Welcome Home' for these boys," said Ronna Ketterling of San Clemente, who was in a wheelchair as she recovers from surgery on her feet.

Ketterling's son, Cpl. Robert Schur II, hugged his mom immediately upon arrival but was resisting her entreaties that he join the family for lunch.

"I just want to go home," he said while tightly holding his girlfriend's hand.

Ketterling said that despite being wheelchair-bound, there was no way she was going to miss her son's homecoming.

"The night he left for his deployment was the worst night of my life," she said. "As a mother, I just had to experience this."

The Ketterling greeting party wore T-shirts emblazoned with "From Camp Pendleton to Iraq and Back ---- Welcome Home Fighting Fifth."

The combat team's commander, Col. Patrick Malay, said the progress made in the expansive Anbar province west of Baghdad that stretches along the Syrian and Jordanian borders is almost indescribable.

When he and his troops got to Iraq, insurgent attacks were about 16 per week with Marines assigned to more than 50 "battle positions." Since then, Malay said the number of attacks has fallen to about one per week and the number of battle positions has shrunk to 10.

Only two among several thousand troops that rotated through during the deployment were lost in battle, Marine Lance Cpl. Drew Weaver and Army Pfc. Aaron Ward, who was attached to the Marine contingent.

"For the two lost it is, of course, a terrible tragedy," Malay said. "But we whacked our fair share of knuckleheads ---- doing it ourselves when we first got there and by proxy through the Iraqi army in the last few months. The Anbar province today is light years ahead of where it had been."

More than 300 other Marines and sailors also came home Sunday, arriving at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. Like many of the Regimental Combat Team 5 troops, a large share of the men and women who arrived at Miramar spent the last 12 months in Iraq.

For many of the wives and girlfriends, it was a long year.

"It's been terrible ---- there's been no one to cuddle with," said Kassandra Stewart, 26, who held a sign that read "Marry me Cpl. Garcia."

Shortly after he arrived, Cpl. Romero Garcia confirmed that a wedding would take place in two weeks in Las Vegas with Elvis performing the ceremony.

Also holding a sign that read "Babe, 386 days of deployment over!" was Joelle Coffey, who was greeting her husband, Sgt. Joshua Coffey.

"It's his second deployment and it's been a very, very long time," the Mission Viejo resident said. "We're just going to relax in a hotel and go out and eat and just be back together."

The troops have three full days of leave, then will be on light duty as they go through medical and psychological screenings and debriefings. After that, they will each go on extended leave.

For Gunnery Sgt. Lorenzo Giacomini, holding his 14-month-old daughter, Bella, for only the second time was the first joy of being home.

"It feels awesome, it feels great," he said.

Oceanside's Sheila Kennedy, 20, was anxious for her boyfriend, Navy Corpsman C.J. Smith, to get home.

"It's about damn time," she said. "I've just missed him a lot. We're going to take a week off and just enjoy each other. We could do nothing for all I care."

The couple will only have a short time together as Kennedy has followed in her father's footsteps and joined the Marines. She leaves for boot camp in March and could be among the thousands of Marines expected to be sent to Afghanistan later this year.

"Afghanistan is the new Iraq," she said. "I just hope it isn't bad as Iraq has been."

Contact staff writer Mark Walker at (760) 740-3529 or mlwalker@nctimes.com.

Ellie