With soldiers home, `Now it's Christmas'

Reunion: Family and friends are overjoyed as a Salisbury-based unit returns from months of duty in Iraq.

December 20, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

All Nicholas Merrill knows about the last time his father came home from war is what he sees in the photo hanging on his bedroom wall - the one of him as a 3-year-old giving his father a hug.

Yesterday, Sgt. 1st Class Larry Merrill of Conowingo came home again from war.

Inside a cozy gymnasium at Aberdeen Proving Ground, the same boy greeted him. Now 16, Nicholas missed his father just as much, hugged him a little tighter and was a lot harder for his father to lift off the ground.

"It couldn't have been any better," Sergeant Merrill said.

Merrill and the rest of the soldiers in the Salisbury-based 115th Military Police Battalion left their homes, jobs and families in February for Aberdeen. In April, their National Guard unit journeyed to Iraq.

Early yesterday morning, the 115 soldiers arrived back at Aberdeen, where no one waited for ceremonies, speeches, pomp or circumstance. Instead, the soldiers and their families skipped straight to the tears and hugs.

"There was no Christmas spirit until we got off the plane," said Sgt. 1st Class Merle Bragg of Hebron. "Now it's Christmas."

For the past eight months, these soldiers managed and worked in a Baghdad jail for Iraqi prisoners of war. They have been home little since Sept. 11, 2001. Before Iraq, they were at the Pentagon, in Georgia and in Cuba.

But their families were here.

Theresa Williams assumed a new personality while her fiance, Duane C. Murrill of Baltimore, was gone. She went into what she calls "survival mode," stubbornly learning to live without him again.

Carrie Lusby of Essex turned 9 while her cousin, Josh Lynn, was away. Her parents threw her a birthday party, and she insisted that her little friends wear camouflage in Lynn's honor.

And Rhonda Mitchell of Hurlock crocheted five blankets since her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Terry Mitchell, left in April. "Every night," she said, "you go to bed and say, `That day's gone.' Then you toss and turn all night."

Home for Christmas

The first sighs of relief came last month when the families learned that their soldiers were expected home for Christmas.

Toni Lynn, Josh Lynn's mother, immediately put up her Christmas tree. "It was up early, and we've just been waiting," she said.

Cheryl and Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Rantz's 5-year-old daughter, Emily, absorbed the good news. Last weekend, she asked her mother for a new pair of shoes with light-up soles. When her mother said no because it was too close to Christmas, she responded, "Well, I'll just ask Daddy, then."

But before they can celebrate Christmas, these soldiers have some catching up to do.

Sgt. Philip Gilchrist of Arlington, Va., planned to eat a Thanksgiving dinner with his family last night.

Lynn turned 26 last month, but his gift still waited under his family's Christmas tree in Easton.

And Rantz of Salisbury had a Father's Day gift to unwrap. He has been gone so long his wife didn't even remember what it was.

Frequent service

These soldiers have been away a lot. Their unit reported to the Pentagon immediately after Sept. 11, 2001. Some of the unit went from there to Fort Stewart, Ga. and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They returned home in late summer of last year. By February, they were at Aberdeen to train. By April, they left for Iraq.

All of the unit has returned safely, officials said. About 30 returned early for either family or medical emergencies. The rest arrived yesterday.

The soldiers began their 36-hour voyage home on Wednesday - from Kuwait to Cyprus to Shannon, Ireland, to Bangor, Maine, to Fort Drum, N.Y., to Maryland.

They went home yesterday and will be home for Christmas, but they will be back and forth between their homes and Aberdeen until Jan. 6. Then the soldiers will turn civilians again.

High-ranking soldiers fill the unit. Many are in their 30s and 40s, and many served in the Persian Gulf war in 1991, including Merrill.

Anticipation builds

But even though many of these soldiers and their families have had practice at reunions, it was hard to tell yesterday.

The families began to gather before 5:30 a.m.

Rhonda Mitchell closely monitored her cellular phone. She waited for either a call from her husband or an update on the impending birth of their third grandchild.

Shortly after 6:30 a.m., she was chewing on her fingernails.

About the same time, Theresa Williams wondered aloud about the impending arrival, "Do you cry? Do you laugh? What do you do?" She concluded her fiance would probably cry.

About 7:15 a.m., the families gathered around the door, with official greeter Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in front.

By 7:25 a.m., there were screams, and two minutes later there were soldiers.

Theresa Williams bounced on her tip-toes looking for her "Baby."

When she found her fiance, Williams climbed back onto her tip-toes so she could rest her head on his shoulder. As she let her "survival" personality peel away, she stared into his eyes. But neither of them cried.

Josh Lynn hugged his mother, father, aunt and now-9-year-old cousin. He said there's no way to make up for holidays missed, but there is a consolation: "Knowing you won't have to do it again."

And Larry Merrill found his daughter, his wife and his son - the one with the longer hair, new driver's permit and carrying a "Welcome Home" sign.

Nicholas Merrill spotted his father, too.

"As soon as I saw him, he was hugging my mom," Nicholas said. "I just dropped the sign and ran up to him and gave him a hug.

"I'll definitely remember this one."

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