View Full Version : Reservists' last convoy a joyful one

07-15-03, 05:54 AM
Reservists' last convoy a joyful one

From Iraqi sands to Jersey roads, Marine transport unit enjoys safe return

Monday, July 14, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

They drove heavy trucks over thousands of miles of cratered roads, endured countless sandstorms and fought through more than a dozen Iraqi ambushes.

After a six-month deployment, the Marine reservists of the Red Bank-based 6th Motor Transport Battalion made their final convoy of the war yesterday aboard four air-conditioned buses bound for a reunion with their families at Fort Monmouth.

"It's like a mirage," Staff Sgt. James Vaccaro, 37, of Keansburg, said as he gazed out at the leafy greenery along Route 35. "Man, it feels so good to be home."

When the buses entered Fort Monmouth, a firetruck sounded its siren to welcome the Marines home. For most, the piercing alarm conjured memories of scuttling for cover as Iraqi missiles rained into their camps in northern Kuwait during the first days of the war.

"Scud!" shouted Lance Cpl. Matt Lawrence, 23, of Glen Ridge.

The Marines erupted in laughter.

"Good one, Lawrence, you almost had me," said First Sgt. Wayne Manstream, 40, the top enlisted man in the battalion's Headquarters and Service Company. "No more Scuds. We're home."

The journey home ended a few seconds later when the buses stopped and the roughly 160 Marines of Headquarters and Service Company marched in formation to a waiting crowd of perhaps 400 family members.

All of the Marines in the unit made it home from Iraq without serious injury.

"We've been waiting and praying a long time for this day," said Mary Ann Cohen as she brushed back tears moments after seeing her son, Lance Cpl. John Cohen, for the first time since January.

As the Marines began mingling with their families, the air was filled with shouts: "There's Daddy" and "Hey baby."

Staff Sgt. Paul Denning of Whitehouse Station scooped up his 5-year-old son, Paul Nico, and asked the boy a question: "Was somebody stretching you when I was gone? You got so big."

Denning, who works for Elizabethtown Water Co. in civilian life, said beyond spending time with his son, 7-year-old daughter Marcella, and his wife, Kathy, he's got few elaborate plans now that he's home.

"I'm just looking forward to walking through the grass in my yard," Denning said. "I've had enough sand."

For Denning and his fellow Marines, the last six months have been a blur of sand.

Their unit, which includes the company in Red Bank as well as branches in Orlando, Fla.; Las Vegas, Nev.; New Haven, Conn.; and the Texas cities of Lubbock and Texarkana; merged with an active duty unit from Camp Pendleton, Calif., for the war.

When the war began, the battalion ran supply convoys, hauling ammunition and fuel for the 1st Marine Division's assault through Iraq. As the war continued, members of the unit were spread from Kuwait to Baghdad.

After the offensive ended, most members of the unit were ordered south to camps in southern Iraq and northern Kuwait, away from the region around Baghdad where troops remain under sporadic and sometimes deadly attack.

"It's hard to see the stuff that's still going on there," said Staff Sgt. Leonard Distaso, a Jersey City firefighter in civilian life. "But we took care of what they sent us there to do."

The Marine Corps is generally used as a rapid-invasion force. The Army, which is larger, is better suited for use as a force of occupation.

Even so, the 6th Motor Transport Marines spent nearly three months after the fall of Baghdad waiting for the word to return home. They sweltered in daytime temperatures that hit 130 degrees most days. They also became acquainted with the local wildlife.

"It was a different bug every day," said Lt. Col. Daniel Colfax, 41, of Sparta, recalling the time the unit spent at a remote outpost called Logistic Supply Point Anderson, a two-hour drive south of Baghdad.

When the word finally came to come home, the Marines boarded a chartered civilian jet in Kuwait and made stops in Ireland and Portland, Maine, before flying to Camp Pendleton, where they spent a week awaiting medical clearance.

They flew from California to Newark Liberty International Airport on a commercial jet, then boarded the chartered buses for the ride to Fort Monmouth after a quick stop at the unit's headquarters in Red Bank.

As the troops boarded the buses at the airport, Colfax, an attorney in Sparta and the commander of the Headquarters and Service Company, said he spent a few minutes on the tarmac watching his troops pile off the plane. He said he did the same thing on the bitterly cold January day the unit shipped out.

"We had two missions: Do what they sent us there to do," Colfax said. "And to come home with everybody we left with. We did both."

Wayne Woolley can be reached at wwoolley@starledger.com or (973) 392-1559.