Six days before Christmas, three planes dropped from a cold, gray sky at Toledo Express Airport, bearing more than 100 special gifts. Members of the Ohio Army National Guard s 323rd Military Police Company had finally returned home after an eight-month stint in Iraq.
Waiting for them on the tarmac yesterday afternoon were husbands and wives, sons and daughters, grandparents and friends, government officials and fellow soldiers who numbered well into the hundreds. Tears flowed, hugs ensued, and a celebratory reunion commenced that promised to go far into the night.
“Everybody wanted to come in and sneak out of here because it s so close to Christmas, but it s nice to see the public support,” said Sgt. Vance Lewis of Perrysburg as he held his daughters Brieanna, 17 months, and Hayleigh, 3 months. Hayleigh was born during his absence.
The families and friends had filled a hangar of the 180th Fighter Wing Ohio Air National Guard by 12:30 p.m. for the expected 1:15 arrival. But the planes were an hour late, heightening the anticipation. After all, the MPs - 124 reservists with civilian jobs - had been away 22 of the last 26 months. They were first deployed to Fort Bragg, N.C., shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, returned 11 months later, and shipped out to Fort Bragg in January. In April, they left for Iraq.
Although the unit saw combat, no one was injured. Nine members of the 323rd had returned to Fort Bragg earlier after suffering illnesses and noncombat injuries, said Capt. Jeff Buck, the unit s leader.
While the families waited, they chatted and munched on snacks. Banners and balloons brightened up the dreary hangar, and an American flag nearly 40-feet tall hung from the rafters above a makeshift stage. Signs welcomed home Bubba, Uncle Bozo, and Bryan. The Great Lakes Air Force band added to the group s joyful mood with a medley of spirited military and holiday songs.
Laura Poon, sporting a Santa s hat, waited anxiously for her father, Sgt. 1st Class John Poon. She not only missed her dad, she missed her basketball coach: Sergeant Poon directs the Rogers High School squad on which his daughter is a senior member.
Nearby, Gary and Marcia Davidson of Versailles, Ohio, chatted with Mrs. Davidson s son, Jason Hemmelgarn, 20. Jason s twin brother, Brian, is a 323rd MP. Jason is a member of the Army reserve s 1487th Transportation Unit in Piqua, Ohio, which is headed to Iraq on Jan. 5. The twins joined the reserves after graduating from high school two years ago but never expected to see this kind of action.
“[We re] really on a roller coaster,” Mrs. Davidson said. “We re going to have to enjoy these next two weeks.”
Diane Jones of Toledo, waiting for her husband, Sgt. Jeffrey Jones, said she was anxious for her husband to get to know their son, Alex, born a few weeks before Sergeant Jones left on his first mission.
“I can t wait to see the look on his face,” she said.
After the brief reunion on the tarmac, the celebration moved inside the hangar, where the MPs were greeted by a number of community and military officials.
“We love you, we re proud of you, and we re proud of your service,” U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) said.
Said Maj. Gen. John Smith, the Army Guard s adjutant general of Ohio: “I commend each of you for a job superbly done. It was a job that was difficult and dangerous.”
Captain Buck addressed his unit for the final time in this mission.
“Leadership is easy in a sterile environment,” he said. “But when you take individuals and put them in 130-degree temperatures, wearing 30 pounds of equipment in a hostile environment, that s tough,” he said.
“We exceeded the standards.”