Seaman Gets A Hero's Welcome From Pupil Pen Pals

Medical Technician Spent Six Months On Duty In Saudi Arabia

War In The Gulf

March 24, 1991|By Staff writer

Reminiscent of the classic Life magazine World War II photograph of a sailor returning from overseas into the outstretched arms of his sweetheart, 23-year-old Stephen McGettigan lifted Darrah Hall off the ground and gave her a big hug and kiss.

Except Hall is not Navy Seaman McGettigan's girlfriend.

She is a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Owen Brown Middle School who taught the seaman 15 years ago when he was in the third grade at Phelps Luck Elementary.

After corresponding with McGettiganduring his sixth-month deployment to Saudi Arabia, the pupils at Owen Brown Middle gave him a hero's welcome home Wednesday. The childrenand faculty greeted him in the school's front lobby, which was decorated with banners, posters and yellow ribbons.

"Do you remember who I am?" asked Hall, who had not seen her former pupil in 10 years.

His look of surprise and heartfelt hug left no doubt.

"I can seethat you went to a lot of trouble," said McGettigan, who arrived home to Columbia last Sunday. "It's nice to see the faces that go along with all the names on my letters."

Sixth-grade science teacher Carolyn Jameson and Principal Marion Payne coordinated the early morningevent. McGettigan's mother, Evelyn, has baby-sat for the children ofboth women.

"Stephen's like part of the family," Jameson said. "I've gone through a lot of the emotions along with his mom. It's wonderful to have him back, safe and healthy."

After the welcome, McGettigan, a Navy dental technician, followed Jameson's students back to her classroom, where they presented him with a small plaque of appreciation.

The 1986 Howard High graduate served with 950 medical and support troops at Navy Fleet Hospital Five in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. The hospital, which provided medical care for all the allied forces, was the largest health facility in Operation Desert Storm, he said.

"Did you kill anybody?" one boy asked.

"Did you carry a gun at all?" another asked.

"We were issued 9mm and .45-caliber guns to protect our patients and ourselves in case of danger," he said. "But just because you're in the service doesn't necessarily mean you get the chance to tote a gun around. There are hundreds of non-combat jobs toperform, and each is just as important as the next."

McGettigan took a two-day crash course in emergency operating room procedures butdidn't have to use any of his newly learned skills.

"What were the bathrooms like?" a student yelled from the back of the room.

Thebathroom facilities were limited, McGettigan said. "But we were luckier than the soldiers camped out in the desert, most of whom didn't even get to take a shower for weeks at a time," he said.

"Gross," groaned the kids.

McGettigan showed the class a sample of his pre-packaged food supplies -- ham, potatoes, apple sauce, crackers, coffeeand a chocolate brownie --which he said really didn't taste that great.

He also displayed and explained how to use his gas mask, chemical warfare gear and a chemical antidote shot.

"Wouldn't sticking yourself in the leg with that needle hurt a lot?" he was asked.

"It only hurts for 30 seconds or so, and that's a lot better than dying from the chemicals," McGettigan explained.

"Did you ever get really lonely and sad being away from your family?" one girl asked.

"I met five good friends while I was over there. We called ourselves the posse. We joked around and gave each other support," he said. "Some of the other guys coped by finding a little space all to themselveswhere they could get away from it all and think. But you couldn't let yourself get too depressed. You knew you had a job to do."

"Do you remember when you heard that the war was over?" another girl asked.

"A bunch of us lit up cigars -- our own little victory cigars," he responded.

"It was the news we'd all been waiting for."

BY: Marc LeGoff

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