Families welcome home 185 National Guardsmen

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(Host) On Monday, the first group of Vermont Army guard soldiers deployed in the Middle East came home to be reunited with their families. The men and women of “Task Force Red Leg” have spent most of the past year Iraq. Their group suffered the first Vermont Guard casualties in combat in over a half century.

VPR’s Steve Zind attended the homecoming.

(Zind) Early Monday morning while it was still dark, sleepy children and excited adults crowded into the big national guard hanger at Burlington Airport, waiting for the moment they’d be reunited with the soldiers.

(Reina Denis) “Long wait. It’s going to be great to see him. I can’t wait.”

(Zind) Reina Denis and her husband Victor drove from their home in Maine to welcome their son Morris, who’s a Vermont State Trooper.

Tammy Holt has felt a little more anxiety than many over the last year. Both her husband and her brother are among the returning guardsmen. Now the anxiety has given way to other emotions.

(Holt) “Nervous, excited.”

(Zind) Holt and the others discovered ways to cope while their loved ones were in Iraq. Many avoided news about the war which heightened their anxiety. They established routines and stayed busy. Being busy hasn’t been a problem for Gretchen King. She’s taken care of two young children while her husband Adam has been in Iraq.

(King) “It’s definitely gotten easier with routines and just getting used to it but I’m really glad it’s over.”

(Zind) Many at Monday morning’s homecoming carried hand-made signs and banners or wore tee-shirts bearing the name of the soldier they’d come to greet.

When the soldier’s flights were delayed because of bad weather, the wait got longer. The roar of a jet outside the windowless building would quiet the crowd for a moment. Someone might press an ear against the side of the hanger. Then, shortly after 7 o’clock, a bell sounded and the wide hanger door was slowly raised. Just outside, like a mirage in the opaque light and swirling snow, stood the soldiers in tan desert fatigues, shoulder to shoulder lined up in formation. Moments later, they rushed inside to meet their families. There were long hugs as parents greeted sons and couples were reunited, the youngest children hanging back uncertainly.

The official part of the homecoming was brief. Adjutant General Martha Rainville was presented with the Green Mountain Boys’ battle flag that she’d given to the unit when they left Vermont in January of last year.

(Rainville) “This flag looks dirtier and a little more faded than when I gave it to you.”

(Zind) As the reunited families headed home, Guardsman Paul Perreault reflected on his time in Iraq. Perreault said the deployment was more dangerous than they expected but he feels the Vermonters made a difference.

(Perreault) “Our base was just outside of a small village and we could see the changes and how we helped a lot of the people there, just by their appreciation and the way they treated us in return.”

(Zind) Kevin Davis of Waitsfield echoed the sentiments of many of the returning guardsmen when asked what he’ll remember most from the deployment.

(Davis) “Friendships. Lost friends and good friends met.”

(Zind) Lost friends included four members of the unit who died while deployed. Sitting quietly in the milling crowd was Kim Bean. Her son Alan died in a mortar attack south of Baghdad last May. She said it was very difficult, but important for her to attend the welcome home ceremony of her son’s unit.

(Bean) “It’s important for us to come and support the troops that are coming home. We want them to know that we are so proud of what they did and what they were over there for. And it just gives us a little bit of closure.”

(Zind) The men and women of task force Red Leg are only a fraction of the Vermont National Guard members who’ve been deployed. More than 1,000 of the state’s Army Guard have been mobilized in the last three months. For their families the wait continues.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in South Burlington.

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