Arriving home from Afghanistan in Tampa, soldier receives motorcycle salute

TAMPA

At 17, Eddie Worthington tried to enlist.

But partial blindness kept him out of the military and out of Vietnam. In 1964, he waved goodbye to one of his buddies headed to basic training.

"I never saw him again," Worthington said.

The buddy, a helicopter gunner, died during his second tour of duty. That loss and Worthington's own inability to serve always stayed with him.

So when one of his own sons, who spent his childhood in Tampa, signed up for the Army last year, more emotions piled up for the father.

"I was really proud," he said, "and scared."

Erik Worthington, 22, had graduated from high school in Lakeland, then bounced around jobs at grocery stores and a carwash.

He told his father he wanted to be part of something important.

Eight months after enlisting, he headed to war.

Several soldiers from his base at Fort Carson, Colo., had been killed in Afghanistan. But the younger Worthington volunteered for immediate deployment to an infantry unit stationed in a high-risk, high-combat area.

He saw more soldiers die, one just a few feet from where he stood. He earned a badge for infantry combat.

Eddie Worthington, 63, considers himself pretty tough, but there were days when tears of worry pooled in his eyes. He isn't much of a praying guy, he said, but he had plenty of conversations with a higher authority. "Please, please, don't let nothing happen to him," he would say.

On Sunday, while other people were at home making dinner and thinking about going back to work, Eddie Worthington waited outside Terminal A at Tampa International Airport to welcome home his son.

He had planned for this moment for months.

He and his family wore light blue T-shirts he ordered for the occasion. "Welcome Home PFC Erik," they said.

Dozens of his fellow Patriot Guard Riders showed up, too, undeterred by the rain and heat. The fact that they didn't personally know Worthington, who lives near Jacksonville, or his son didn't dampen their enthusiasm for the happy homecoming. "I'd rather do these where we're welcoming them back alive," said Randall McNabb, 56, of Madeira Beach. "You actually get to shake their hands and tell them thanks."

But after Erik Worthington arrived in the terminal, hugged his father and took in the wall of flags and supporters there to surprise him, it was the soldier who extended his appreciation.

"When the s--- hits the fan, you remember everybody (back home) and that keeps you pushing," he said.

Then he hugged some more, got his bag, headed to the car. He'll be home for the next three weeks — including his birthday — before heading to Fort Carson.

Outside the airport, the Patriot Guard Riders lined up more than two dozen motorcycles to escort the family of honor home to Lakeland.

Eddie Worthington sat in the driver's seat of his car, his son safely by his side.

Both now forever part of something important.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Arriving home from Afghanistan in Tampa, soldier receives motorcycle salute 06/28/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 28, 2010 12:06am]

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