Back to their regular lives

Fort Meade: Reservists return after nearly a year, happy to be back but worried about soldiers in Iraq whose tours have been extended.

April 20, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

The Army reservists kept solemn faces during most of their welcome-home ceremony at Fort Meade yesterday until their commander uttered one word: "Dismissed."

Then the nearly 40 men and women of the 444th Personnel Service Battalion, Detachment 2, who had been stationed in the Middle East for nearly a year, whooped and ran toward their families.

As Staff Sgt. Tony Redd cradled 8-month-old grandson B.J., however, his thoughts turned toward other soldiers still in Iraq.

"My heart goes out for the soldiers and family members whose time has been extended," said the 46-year-old Randallstown resident. "I feel for them. Myself, I'd rather be at home enjoying my family than being over there."

Such sentiments were repeated yesterday at Fort Meade, the sprawling Army post in western Anne Arundel County. Many units have had their tours of duty extended because of new fighting in Iraq. So while soldiers and their families celebrated, they acknowledged how lucky they were to be together.

"I just prayed a lot," Lisa Adams said as she hugged her husband, Staff Sgt. Sam Adams.

The detachment was sent abroad almost a year ago, and many returned during the fall and winter for a short vacation. They returned to the United States nearly a week ago but were sent to Fort Lee, Va., to be debriefed for most of last week.

Still, there was a tremendous sense of joy at Fort Meade yesterday. Families gathered on the steps of an auditorium to scan the horizon for the soldiers, who were due to march into the post's Training and Education Center in formation.

"Are they here yet?" asked Erin Perrone of Jessup as she puffed on a cigarette and held a "Welcome Home" sign for her brother, Joseph, who is also from Jessup.

Most members of the detachment were stationed along the Iraq-Kuwait border, where they performed support services for combat soldiers, including helping with mail delivery and communication systems.

As a result, most of the soldiers had access to phones and the Internet and were in constant contact with their families. "We heard from him almost every day," said Bruce Coyle, a plumber from Frederick whose son, Christopher, serves in the 444th.

But some battalion members were assigned to Iraq, where they did come close to combat. Redd was walking near some bunkers one night on the Iraqi side of the border when mortar shells started to fall. Redd quickly sought cover and prayed.

"When you sign up, you don't expect to be mobilized and to see things like that," Redd said.

Despite the dangers, none of the battalion members was killed or injured during the deployment - a fact that brightened the face of Capt. Andy Bishop, the group's commander and a Pittsburgh resident. "All present and accounted for," he said, his smile stretching across his tanned face.

The return of the Fort Meade-based reservists comes less than a week after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered about 20,000 U.S. troops to remain in Iraq for three to four more months to confront rising unrest. Many of those with extended deployments were preparing to come home.

About 4,300 of the soldiers are from National Guard and Army Reserve units, though none are from Maryland.

Bishop said members of his unit didn't spend too much time thinking about whether they would be redeployed, but some acknowledged that it was a major concern. "We were on pins and needles," Adams said. "We were worried and wanted to get ourselves mentally ready if we need to be redeployed."

Army officials didn't know why the detachment wasn't redeployed, but they noted that units essential to the war are generally kept in Iraq while others are rotated back to the United States. And the detachment could be sent back to the Middle East, depending on developments in that region.

After yesterday's brief ceremony, soldiers lingered to shake hands with colleagues and make sandwiches from the cold-cut buffet. The soldier's children formed a loose playgroup, chasing each other in tight circles while the adults chatted.

Amid the grins and happy tears, soldiers said they were looking forward to returning to their regular lives. Perrone's sisters had stocked up on beer, their brother's favorite drink, and Redd said he was looking forward to doing some yard work.

"I'm looking forward to [being] with my wife," said Adams as he hugged her.

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