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Published: Saturday, 6/10/2006

11 Ohio guardsmen home after 6 months' duty in Iraq; unit's deployment ends at home base

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A call for volunteers came down last September to members of the security forces squadron of the Ohio Air National Guard 180th Fighter Wing based at Toledo Express Airport.

As Staff Sgt. Jeff Roberts recalls, his commander said there was a mission to complete somewhere on the globe. But he couldn't tell them where or when they would be deployed.

"He just said there's a mission and they need volunteers, and they need to know by the end of the day," said Sergeant Roberts, 40, a Persian Gulf War veteran. "By the end of the day, he pretty much had his bodies."

Twelve volunteers were deployed in early December for six months of duty in Iraq, teaching and equipping members of the new Iraqi police force. The guardsmen were stationed at a training academy compound in the northern city of Mosul, where the summer heat can reach upward of 115 degrees.

The unit's deployment ended yesterday morning when Sergeant Roberts and 10 other men of the 180th Security Forces Squadron of the Ohio Air National Guard stepped off a gray tanker jet at their Air National Guard base on Eber Road in Monclova Township.

Command Chief Master Sgt. Chris Muncy, right, greets Sgt. Jeff Roberts on the soldiers  return to the Air National Guard 180th Tactical Wing based at Toledo Express Airport.
Command Chief Master Sgt. Chris Muncy, right, greets Sgt. Jeff Roberts on the soldiers return to the Air National Guard 180th Tactical Wing based at Toledo Express Airport.
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One soldier had to return earlier because of a "noncombat-related injury," said Lt. Holly Caldwell, a public affairs officer. She could provide no more information yesterday on the identity of the guardsman or the circumstances of his injury, and did not return calls yesterday afternoon.

The guardsmen arriving aboard a KC-130 refueling tanker were greeted by a gathering of family and friends, many of whom were holding colorful homemade banners and signs welcoming them home. Waiting for Sergeant Roberts in the cool, brisk breeze near the edge of the runway were his parents, nieces, his sister, a nephew, and three young daughters.

As the aircraft's giant metal door lowered, the crowd rushed to catch their first glimpses of their loved ones in half a year.

"Hold your signs up! Hold your signs up!" shouted Sergeant Roberts' mother, Claudia Roberts, to his three daughters, who were clutching "Welcome Home Daddy" signs.

"There he is! I see his hand, I see his hand!" Mrs. Roberts yelled out.

Moments later, Sergeant Roberts, dressed in light brown desert fatigues and a sleek pair of black, wrap-around sunglasses, embraced his daughters in a blur of hugs and kisses.

Nearby, Kim Simmons beamed as she saw her 26-year-old son, Staff Sgt. Justin Simmons, who is father to a 6-year-old girl and two boys, ages 3 and 1.

"It's the day we've been waiting for - now he's home," his mother said.

For several soldiers returning home, the mission was not their first to the Middle East.

Staff Sgt. Brett Czaja, 26, of Sylvania said he has now been deployed to the region three times since 2002. Before this latest mission, Sergeant Czaja said he served with the security unit for five months in Saudi Arabia that overlapped with the 2003 start of major combat operations in Iraq.

He said he believes deployment abroad has been emotionally easier for him than for some because he is not married and has no children, as most of his comrades do.

Sergeant Czaja also said that this most recent mission, conducted when the enemy is composed of insurgent rebels rather than a formal army, offered unique challenges.

"It's not like the old days when they had uniforms," Sergeant Czaja said.

Like many of the soldiers yesterday, he said he was eager to trade in the military's T-Rations for some regular food.

But he had other priorities first.

"I'm going to go home and take a nap," he said.

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.



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