'I thank God you're home safely'

Md. honors Guard's Iraq service

July 28, 2008|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Sun reporter

During his yearlong deployment in Iraq, Maryland National Guard Col. Sean Casey missed Maryland's color - a world where everything wasn't dark tan or dark green.

Maj. Jared Lake had a hunger for Papa John's pizza and a day with his 5-year-old son.

And Staff Sgt. Brian Dudley was missing his kids' basketball games and sleeping in a comfortable bed.

Yesterday the sacrifices - great and small - of Maryland's citizen soldiers were recognized by elected officials, including Gov. Martin O'Malley. The ceremony at Towson University marked the 90th day of being home for the 125 members of the Guard's Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 58th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

"I thank God you're home safely," O'Malley told the soldiers. "We thank you and your family. ... We are all humbled by your commitment and your service."

The unit members oversaw roads, utilities and other services for troops stationed at the Victory Base Complex in Baghdad. They were among 1,200 Maryland National Guard soldiers who spent the past year in Iraq as part of the largest deployment of combat troops from Maryland since World War II.

Four were wounded. None of them were killed, officials said.

"Our service came at the height of violence in Baghdad," Casey said, noting several times when unit members responded to attacks on the base, which killed several soldiers and wounded dozens of others.

Casey also remembered the lighter side of their service together - the corporal who was famous for his one-liners, the first lieutenant who emerged as a strong leader but also had a memorable giggle, the soldiers who won the base body-building contests.

"It was good to wrap everything up," said Lake, a Dundalk native who lives in White Hall and treasured the cards his 5-year-old son, Colby, made him in preschool.

The unit met at the one-month and two-month marks, too. And Saturday, they toured the Veterans Affair Medical Center in Baltimore together, so they would know where they could get treatment for any symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"You become a family for a while," said 1st Lt. Dave Causey of Parkville. "It was great to see everyone again. Some folks will be retiring soon. Some will be going back to other units."

Causey's 6-year-old daughter, Isabel, accompanied him to yesterday's ceremony, while his wife went to a soccer game with their 8-year-old son, Gabriel.

Dudley, who has children ages 10, 7 and 5, agreed with his fellow soldiers about missing the little things some parents might take for granted. "I missed the birthdays, the school functions, the basketball practices," said Dudley, a computer programmer from Odenton.

During their time apart, many families kept in touch with e-mail and frequent phone calls.

Sgt. Mark Jessee, an Aberdeen Proving Ground police officer, got lots of shipments of his favorite snack, pistachios. "It was a little overwhelming at some points, but nice to know they were thinking of me," said Jessee, who has 16- and 13-year-old sons and 15- and 11-year-old daughters.

He had been deployed once before, several years ago, but the assignment was in Maryland, when he and his family lived in Virginia, which made monthly visits home possible.

For Maj. Charles Blomquist, an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore, the deployment was also a second tour. About a year and half ago, as a Reserve officer, Blomquist was sent to Afghanistan.

"This time was a little harder," said his wife, Joan. Their sons, 10 and 11 years old, are more independent and in some ways easier to care for, she said.

"But they also knew more of what was going on," Joan Blomquist, an obstetrician-gynecologist, said. "They were a little more anxious."

Their father had been the boys' Little League coach before the deployment.

The couple also had to deal with the deaths of both of their fathers during the year, she said. They are still getting back into a normal routine and coping with the losses.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, about 4,900 Maryland Guard members have been deployed, said Lt. Col. Charles Kohler. About 130 members of a military police unit from Parkville are currently serving in Iraq. They are due to return from a year of service this fall, Kohler said. About 80 members from a medical company in Laurel are also stationed in Iraq. They are due to return home next spring.

More than one elected official yesterday compared the unpopularity of this war to the Vietnam War, but noted a difference between the two.

"I think every man and woman in this country supports our servicemen and -women," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, "whether or not they support this war."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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