Tense hours of waiting pay off in soldiers' hugs

Welcome: Loved ones barely endured the delay, but once they and Owings Mills-based Army reservists touched, months of duty in Iraq were history.

December 07, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

FORT LEE, Va. - If only these soldiers from Owings Mills knew how much their families fussed over their homecoming.

That their wives and mothers argued over who would get the first hug. That their spouses were nervous, even scared, about seeing them again. That one of their little girls fretted over just what to wear, an elegant black dress or a comfortable pajama top.

The soldiers of the 443rd Military Police Company never saw that. All those concerns evaporated with their belated arrival from Iraq at 6:30 a.m. yesterday.

They marched into a field house under an enormous American flag as lieutenants, sergeants and specialists. Inside that field house they became "Sweetheart," "Daddy" and "Jack" again.

Their company, based in Baltimore County, has been active longer than any other Army Reserve unit, officials here said. Since October 2001, these soldiers have slept at home for five months and a few sporadic weekends. Most recently, they deployed in May to Iraq, where they guarded prisoners of war at a jail near Baghdad's airport.

The troops marched in through a garage door as the Fort Lee Army Band played "God Bless America." They stood at attention on the field house floor, facing their loved ones, who were seated in bleachers and folding chairs. In the front row, Karen Magowan of Arnold dabbed her left eye with a tissue, then her right.

The sniffles from one side of the field house echoed the sniffles on the other.

"If we didn't have you," Maj. Gen. Karol A. Kennedy told the troops, "I don't know what this nation would fall back on."

But many of the soldiers didn't hear a word she said. They were too busy eyeing their wives, fiancees and children who weren't so small anymore. At 6:52 a.m., after 20 minutes of ceremony, they ran at each other.

"I love you. I missed you," Magowan told her husband.

"Stop crying," Spc. Kareem Falcon, 22, of Severn told her mother.

For up to an hour they lingered on the basketball court. Then they escaped to the nearby Waffle House and hotel rooms. The soldiers will begin deactivation today and hope to be home by next weekend.

"It's the biggest Christmas present we've ever gotten," said Ismael Falcon, Kareem's father. "The last seven or eight months have been pretty worrisome. You try to hold your faith, but it's hard."

The unit returned here, 25 miles south of Richmond, Va., with the same number of soldiers it departed with - 117. Two came home early on medical leave; two others joined the unit, officials said.

Their return was anything but smooth and uneventful. First it was to be 8 a.m. Friday. Then 8 p.m. Friday. Then very early Saturday.

The path home: Kuwait to Cairo to Italy - where First Lt. Shawn Magowan rolled in the grass because he'd seen nothing but sand since May - to Scotland to Canada to Langley Air Force Base, near the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.

Word of their delay started to spread Thursday night. Wives with cellular phones heard from husbands who said they were stuck in Italy because of bad weather. Word filtered through the chain restaurants and hotels clustered between the base and nearby Interstate 295.

It didn't reach everyone. Tamara Medeiros never heard her phone ring. She, her 16-year-old son and her 8-year-old triplets dressed up and drove to Fort Lee's field house Friday morning. That's where they and dozens of other families learned that reunions would come later - 22 hours later.

After your soldier has been gone for more than six months, what's another 22 hours?

The longest hours, some said.

For Karen Magowan, it was a day to hit the Hampton Inn treadmill - twice.

For Medeiros of Westminster, it marked another day alone with the kids.

For her kids, it was forever, Medeiros said. "An hour is a long time when you're 8."

They passed the time at the base youth center, where some played pool. Rita Medeiros learned how to sneak the nine ball past the eight ball and into the corner pocket.

They ate a lunch of pears, peanut butter and jelly, and fried rice - their father's specialty. Emily whispered into her mother's ear, "Try it. It's not Daddy's."

These soldiers have been gone a lot.

"When 9/11 happened," said Tamara Medeiros, 40, "it happened to us. That's when our lives changed. That was the line of demarcation for the 443rd."

On Oct. 6, 2001, the unit left Maryland for Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

Gwendolyn Knight of Edgewood was 9 weeks old. Her father's unit returned East on Sept. 23 last year, only to leave Feb. 27 for Fort Lee. Three days after Mother's Day, the unit left for Iraq. Within days, the soldiers were in Baghdad.

Gwendolyn Knight thinks her Daddy only visits in hotel rooms. She grew accustomed to seeing him in San Antonio hotels. She looked for him inside her room Thursday night in Virginia.

"She correlates her Daddy to a hotel," said Noreen Knight, her mother.

Now that Sgt. Tim Knight is home, he will find changes.

At 2 1/2 , Gwendolyn's vocabulary has grown, she can count to 20, she sings "Jingle Bells" and she's nearly potty-trained.

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