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Families welcome troops home; 216th Engineer Battalion returns after serving year in Iraq

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    Spec. Joshua Bey of the 216th Engineer Battalion wipes away tears while Amazing Grace is played in honor of three fallen comrades. The soldiers were welcomed home yesterday.

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    Sgt. Jeff Gagle, elementary principal at Toledo Christian School, is greeted by his students during a welcome-home ceremony.

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Donnale Williams, Jr., didn't care much for military protocol yesterday as he waited for his father, Sgt. Donnale Williams, fresh off the bus from Iraq, to be dismissed from his mission.

There was no stopping 3-year-old "D.J.", who broke loose from his mother and ran straight into his father's arms, even as the 216th Engineer Battalion's Company C, which arrived in Toledo after spending a year in Iraq, was still standing at attention.

Sergeant Williams, 32, a Toledo native, was one of the 120 soldiers of the local Ohio National Guard unit, which was welcomed home with many hugs, kisses, and tears of joy from family and friends in an auditorium at Owens Community College.

"I feel ecstatic to be back," said Sergeant Williams, holding D.J. in his arms. His other son, Christopher, 12, tugged on his father's tan military desert fatigues.

Families-welcome-troops-home-216th-Engineer-Battalion-returns-after-serving-year-in-Iraq-2

Sgt. Jeff Gagle, elementary principal at Toledo Christian School, is greeted by his students during a welcome-home ceremony.

Morrison / The Blade
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"It's a blessing to have him back," Christopher said.

"I'm speechless," said Katie Williams, his wife. "It's great to have him back home. It has been a really long year."

His mother, Diana Stewart, said she was not only glad to see her son back home, but "now I can watch something else on TV," she said. "I only watched the news the whole time he was there because I wanted to see what happened."

She had good reasons to worry about her son. Three soldiers from the 216th did not return yesterday. They were killed in action.

Families-welcome-troops-home-216th-Engineer-Battalion-returns-after-serving-year-in-Iraq-3

Spec. Joshua Bey of the 216th Engineer Battalion wipes away tears while Amazing Grace is played in honor of three fallen comrades. The soldiers were welcomed home yesterday.

Morrison / The Blade
Enlarge | Buy This Image

First Lt. Charles Wilkins III, Spec. Ryan Martin, and Pfc. Samuel Bowen, were remembered in a solemn moment as the hymn "Amazing Grace," was played and candles were lit in memory of the fallen soldiers.

The auditorium in Owens' Student Health and Activities Center was plastered with posters of welcome and thanks.

"We pray for those who serve our country," read one. Another stated simply: "Thank you."

A young girl standing in the bleachers held a sign: "Welcome Home to our Hero, Sgt. Jeff Gagle."

She was one of the many elementary students from Toledo Christian School who were dismissed early to see their principal as he returned from Iraq.

"I am elated to not only see my family and friends, but also my students," said Sergeant Gagle, who was surrounded by many of his students.

He said he was particularly touched by the fact that his students were very supportive the entire time he was in Iraq. "It makes me feel good to see them again, and I can't wait to get back to work," he said.

The 216th was called to active duty in December, 2003. The unit left for Camp Atterbury, Ind., in January, 2004, and later was deployed to a military base in Tikrit. The soldiers returned to Camp Atterbury on Sunday, and arrived at Owens in two buses with a police escort.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Terrence O'Donnell was the keynote speaker at the reception.

"Our job was to support the troops by doing construction, clearing roads, and re-building other bases," Spec. Rico Williams said.

As the Toledo native stood in a hallway waiting to see his family, Specialist Williams, 25, said: "I'm glad to be back home, and I wouldn't wish that experience on anybody else."

Contact Karamagi Rujumba at:

krujumba@theblade.com

or 419-724-6064.

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