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04-12-09, 07:05 AM
Five Marines from Washingtonville return after year in Iraq
'Dear God, let them all come home'
By Doyle Murphy
Times Herald-Record
April 12, 2009 6:00 AM

GLENVILLE — Twenty-four motorcycles — the riders, veterans revving their engines — led the way through the gates of the military base. They continued up a winding drive and through a parking lot crowded with the families of Marines. The Marines themselves followed in three long buses and leaned toward the windows when they saw the crowd.

Five young men on those buses graduated from Washingtonville High School, assembled in the same unit by chance. All five had spent the past year away from their families. All five returned on Friday from Iraq.

They had come back to a crowd of hundreds.

The cry of "The buses are here!" was repeated rapidly through the masses as the flashing lights of an escort of state police cars appeared. People hollered and cried and jumped up and down until the sound of the motorcycles covered their voices. The buses pulled even with the crowd and then past, following the motorcycles in a slow arc around a partition and out of sight.

The families and friends of those five Washingtonville Marines followed the path of the buses with their eyes. The coincidence that put their sons into the same unit, the same peril, had also put those families into a small network of shared understanding, pride and worry.

The code

Patricia Valle is on the phone Thursday, and she's explaining a code. She says she might send an e-mail to her son, Lance Cpl. Eddie Valle, saying something breezy like, "Just thought of you today, heard something funny and just wanted to shoot you a quick e-mail."

She wants to say, "My God, are you OK? Did you close your eyes tonight? Did you get enough to eat? Did you get to take a shower?" But she doesn't want him to see her worry. She doesn't want to risk any distractions while he's over there.

For his part, Eddie tells his mom everything is great in Iraq, couldn't be better.

The Marines

Lance Cpl. Tony Kalish is the youngest. He celebrated his 21st birthday in Iraq. Lance Cpl. Ryan Gallagher is the oldest at 24. He's the son of a Marine, the grandson of a Navy man. "He always wanted to be a soldier," his mother, Gloria Gallagher, said.

Cpl. Henry "Danté" Perez is 23 and already a veteran of the war. He first went to Iraq as a teenager. Lance Cpl. James Salka is a tall 22-year-old with a younger brother training in Parris Island, S.C., so he can be a Marine, just like James.

The network

The Washingtonville network consisted mainly of short e-mails back and forth between the mothers of the Marines. It was a way to circumvent the code. In conversations with Eddie Valle, Patricia might try to hide her concern, but she could always call James' mom, Dawn Salka, or e-mail the other mothers: "Have you heard anything?" If one woman heard from her son, she could pass that along to the other mothers so they would know all five were OK. They understood the need for information when there was little. And they understood the little things, too. Nilsa Perez put off Christmas so she could celebrate when Danté returned. Patricia left a seat open at her Christmas table. Tony Kalish's mom, Ann Debono, found the fifth-grade yearbook where her boy said his goal was to be a soldier. Dawn found a picture of 2-year-old James in a Marine's cap. Gloria Gallagher says Ryan never dressed for Halloween as anything but a soldier.

It was comforting to have people so close who understood, but then came the other thoughts. What if only four came home?

"You had in the back of your head, 'Dear God, let them all come home,'" Patricia Valle said.

The reunion

The moment arrived about 7:30 p.m. Friday. All five Washingtonville Marines posed for the group shot on New York dirt. They smiled as a dozen cameras clicked. Their mothers watched through red-rimmed eyes.

It was the mothers' turn next. The young men moved out of the way, and the five women posed together for a final picture. Danté got ready to leave with his mom, but one more Marine stopped him to say goodbye before Fox Company scattered. Cpl. Sean Doyle, 26, shook hands with Danté. They used to pass the time in Iraq talking about life in the mid-Hudson Valley. Doyle knew the area just as well as the five from Washingtonville. He's from Goshen.