Family, friends overwhelm Marines returning to Camp Pendleton

By Amy Oakes

September 14, 2003

CAMP PENDLETON The sergeant from Pismo Beach planned his first few days at home well before his battalion left Iraq.

There would be dinner at his favorite Irish restaurant in Carlsbad and, maybe, a Dodgers game the next day. What Jason McManus hadn't planned on was the turnout of family and friends who welcomed him home yesterday.

"It's a little overwhelming," the 24-year-old said, surrounded by more than a dozen people. "It still hasn't sunk in yet."

About 320 Marines from the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment returned to base here after about eight months in Iraq. Some of the 1,000-person battalion arrived Friday; the rest were scheduled to return today and tomorrow.

The Navy's Carl Vinson carrier strike group began its return to the West Coast after an eight-month deployment. The cruiser Antietam and several aircraft squadrons were scheduled to arrive here today.

Twelve F/A-18C Hornets from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 are scheduled to arrive this morning at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. The "Black Knights" deployed in late January.

At Camp Pendleton, family and friends of the returning Marines arrived early yesterday afternoon to set up. They decorated the gymnasium with hand-painted signs and anxiously waited for news of the Marines' arrival.

"It's reality now," said Linda Johnson, who was waiting for her son, Douglas.

Johnson brought her husband and Doug's older sister, Jenny, from Roanoke, Va., to welcome him.

"It's been the worst roller-coaster ride of my life," she said.

The infantry battalion is one of the last Camp Pendleton-based combat units to return from Iraq. It was deployed Jan. 17 and was involved in several battles as forces moved toward Baghdad.

In the past few months, the unit worked in Babil province to repair utilities, conduct security and provide humanitarian aid, according to the base's Web site. Four Marines in the battalion were killed in Iraq.

Cpl. Charlie Sizemore, 23, of Indiana said his experiences, especially helping young Iraqis the past few months with school repairs, is something he'll always remember.

"It opened my eyes to how good America is," he said.

His mother, Sheri, just smiled as tears filled her eyes. Moments before, her son had wrapped his arms tightly around her and lifted her off the ground.

"I can't believe he's finally here," she said. Then she gave him a motherly look-over and said, "My baby is so thin."

Not far away, Jason McManus was still taking pictures and talking to family and friends. His father, Jim, couldn't seem to stop the flow of tears.

When his son said he was going to leave, his father was quick to correct him.

"No, you aren't. We've got more hugs."

Amy Oakes: (619) 498-6633;