Hug, tears greet returning Marines

TAMPA — Tears streamed down Greta Johnson's face Tuesday as the buses rolled into the Marine Reserve Training Center, bringing her boyfriend home from the war. A Minnesota college student, she met Cpl. Tyler Olson, 20, at a wedding in Central Florida last year, shortly before he shipped out to Iraq for seven months. And Tuesday was only the 22nd day they could hold each other since the couple began their long-distance relationship.

As Olson, who is from Oviedo, stepped off the bus, Johnson lowered her welcome home sign and stepped aside to let his father, Dean, hug him tight. Then the patient woman with the long red hair wrapped her arms around both generations of the wiry men, still crying. She was ready to pick up where they had left off.

Seventy families of the 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion shared the same joy, because this time all of the Marine reservists made it home from Iraq's Anbar province alive.

With this active-duty deployment over, they'll be returning to their civilian lives.

Sgt. Patrick Demings, 40, of Tampa, returning from his second deployment, gave the Iraqi people some of the credit for their safe return, along with a revamped military strategy.

"The people are actually accepting what we're there to do," Demings said. "They are helping out more now, and they are starting to take control of the situation."

This has not always been the case for the 4th Battalion.

On April 7, 2003, one of their own, Lance Cpl. Andrew J. Aviles, died on a bridge outside Baghdad when enemy artillery struck his amphibian assault vehicle.

And two years later, on Aug. 3, 2005, the 4th's Lance Cpl. Kevin Waruinge was one of 14 Marines killed by a roadside bomb near the city of Haditha in western Iraq.

But there was no grief Tuesday night, only joy, that and a little hunger.

"I want a Big Mac," said Cpl. Jared Brookshire, 20, of Melbourne. His mother, Debbie, welcomed him home from his first deployment with a professionally printed sign her boss gave her for the occasion.

"The signmaker is a Vietnam veteran, and he said he was just so glad to hear my son was coming home that he gave us the sign for free," she said.

Some families had been through this before — but that didn't diminish their excitement.

Mary Haywood, 29, of Tampa was so ready to see her nephew, Cpl. Freddie Easter, that she tripped on the step on the way into the training center and hurt her ankle.

"The Marines gave me a wrap and a chair to sit in while we waited," she said. "But when I saw him get off the bus, I felt no pain."

Capt. John Kim said this battalion of reservists has been a workhorse for the Corps with deployments to Iraq in 2003, and Africa and Iraq in 2005.

"We're glad there were no casualties," Kim said. He was happy to have them back, so they could rejoin their families and "make more babies,'' he joked.

Cpl. Anthony Zupo, 28, had a head start on that assignment. His wife, Jami, showed him Anthony Jr., 5 months, who up until now he had only seen in photographs.

The new parents teared up as they were reunited not far from where bus drivers were unloading duffle bags.

The reunions broke up briefly for a quick roll call inside the training center, then the Marines streamed out, piling into cars with their loved ones. And the caravan rolled out of the parking lot, horns honking, cheers filling the night in celebration.

Their Marines made it back.

Hug, tears greet returning Marines 11/25/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 28, 2008 7:30pm]

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