A welcome home from tour in Iraq

Crisfield: Members of the 1229th Transportation Company find out how much they are appreciated as the unit returns from 13 months in the Middle East.

May 08, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CRISFIELD - It seemed as if all 2,723 people in town were tracking the 1229th Transportation Company's arrival here yesterday as if it were some military campaign. In a way, it was.

Cell phones in this little waterfront community were chirping every few minutes all morning with reports on the location of the blue-and-white charter bus hauling nearly 60 Maryland National Guard truck drivers from Fort Lee, Va., up U.S. 13 along the Delmarva Peninsula toward home.

And all morning, friends, family members and neighbors scrambled with last-minute details to make sure these hometown soldiers, who landed last weekend in Virginia after 13 months in Iraq, got a reception to equal the homecomings that have become tradition here.

Bob Elswich, a former first sergeant with the 1229th, remembers the welcome he and fellow Guardsmen received 13 years ago when they returned from the Persian Gulf war.

"It would bring tears to your eyes," said Elswich, a construction foreman on one of the new condominium projects that have changed Crisfield's landscape since the unit shipped out for Iraq in March last year. "I remember people meeting us on the road at the Virginia-Maryland line. I remember the smallest things, like having a glass of ice water."

Yesterday, yellow ribbons were tied to every utility pole for at least 10 miles along Route 413 leading into town.

Some businesses had signs made. A blizzard of little American flags waved in the breeze as shopkeepers, office workers and others prepared signs of welcome.

Businesses close

Nearly every shop, bank and office along the route let workers off at least long enough to go outside and watch the parade. Somerset County employees, such as Donna Tyler, got the day off.

Tyler, pointing to her 14-year-old niece, Jessica Carmine, said she remembers the 1991 homecoming vividly, even the red, white and blue outfit that then-2-year-old Jessica wore that day.

"My husband, Tim, was in the Guard, too," Tyler said. "We welcomed them home the last time, when Jessica was so little, so here we are again."

Police cruisers and fire vehicles waited a few miles south of Crisfield, then escorted the bus from the Somerset County line.

"I've been working on this for a whole week," said Steve Marshall, a Crisfield native who as county emergency management chief seemed a good choice to handle logistics. "This is really what a small town is all about."

Joining the parade

Volunteer firefighters from a half-dozen local companies lined up equipment at strategic spots along the route, then joined the parade as it passed.

"I grew up with some of these guys," said Danny Tyler, chief of the Crisfield Volunteer Fire Department. "A bunch of them are members here in this company. Everybody wanted this for them."

As the procession, which grew to about 40 fire trucks, ambulances and other vehicles, slowly rolled into town, firefighters blasted sirens and horns as people lined Main Street near The Depot, the town's public dock.

The Washington High School Junior ROTC color guard snapped to attention, the high school band performed "God Bless America," and the procession made a U-turn and headed for the Gen. Maurice D. "Dana" Tawes Armory, named for the hometown soldier who survived the D-Day invasion and served 38 years in the Guard.

In front of the imposing brick building, hundreds of people listened as the Crisfield High School band played "Proud to be an American," then cheered as the charter bus came to a halt.

Staff Sgt. Robert "Mugsy" Evans, a 30-year Guard veteran and the oldest member of the company at age 57, kissed the ground of "good ole Crisfield" when he exited the bus.

His wife, Carolyn, a Crisfield town councilwoman, said the couple were looking for a little normality after the long separation.

"He wants crab cakes for dinner, and that is what he will have," Evans said. "I don't think it'll seem real until I get him home in our own house."

Family together

Standing in the crush of well-wishers who jammed the street in front of the armory, Spc. Michael Wigglesworth Jr., struggled to hold his son, David, 6, his daughter, Amy, 9, and his wife, Traci.

Like many in the unit, Wigglesworth said he was grateful that everyone returned unharmed. His wife cried as he recounted an ambush near Baghdad in which the wrecker truck he was driving was destroyed by Iraqi fighters.

"The town's support is just unreal," said Wigglesworth, a state correctional officer. "I don't think it's all really sunk in yet. I think all of us need a little time off after all we've seen and done."

Sgt. Patricia Drummond, a teacher from Bowie, said she'll need the summer to get reacquainted with civilian life.

"I'm just trying to hold back the tears," Drummond said as she gazed on her 11-month-old granddaughter, Taylor, for the first time. "This is the day. I'm just trying to take it all in."

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