In the military, being home with family and friends for the holidays is a privilege, not a right. Whether finishing boot camp, being stationed in a small military town or just returning from a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan, being home for the holidays takes on a new meaning for service members. Here are some thoughts about being home from a few locals who are currently serving the country.
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Last year this time, U.S. Army Spc. Wayne Heath was living in a shipping container that he and a few of his squad members turned into a room with hand-made bunk beds. Heath's M249 squad automatic weapon was always nearby.
The 2006 Countryside High graduate was deep into a 14-month tour in southern Baghdad where he would go on daily patrols.
But this holiday season, Heath is lounging on the body-melting blue couch in his family's Safety Harbor living room. His dog of 12 years, Cody, is nearby staring into the hardwood floors and seeing old age. In the driveway is the black and shiny 2008 Silverado truck that Heath paid cash for a few days ago.
"It's awesome," Heath, 20, said. "I love being home."
Heath joined the Army on Sept. 11, 2006. An infantry man, his unit is stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky. The 502nd Infantry Regiment was supposed to return stateside this month but its departure from Iraq was moved up and it landed back in Kentucky on Nov. 17.
When Heath arrived in Safety Harbor on Dec. 7, he and the family headed to Bonefish Grill, where he worked during his junior and senior years of high school. He had his favorite: crab cake fillet.
Heath then headed home where on the side of the house was a banner welcoming him back to the neighborhood.
In the house, a yellow ribbon ornament made when Heath was a private first class hung on the tree. A bear dressed in fatigues and a delicate ball with a United States flag hung on the tree as well.
"I'm just glad to be home," said Heath, who is trying to let his hair grow a little during the break before reverting to the high-and-tight cut he wears while in uniform. "During the holidays, your friends are home from college so you get see a lot of people. It's just good to be home."
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Airman John Cox and Pvt. Cody Devereaux have been friends since middle school. When you saw one, you would usually see the other nearby.
They graduated from Largo High last year and initially planned to join the Marine Corps together. But Devereaux, 18, decided to follow his older brother, who had joined the Army and is in Afghanistan.
Devereaux went to boot camp in July and later trained to be a combat engineer before being sent to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he is currently stationed.
Cox, 19, headed to the Air Force in September. He completed boot camp and is stationed at Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, Texas, where is training to be a firefighter.
For the first time since July, Cox and Devereaux are in Largo at the same time and are hanging out like old times. And to make it even better, it is during the holidays.
"This is the longest time I've been away from home," Cox said. "Before I left, it was like 'I'm getting out of Largo to go do something with my life.' But then when it was time to come home, I was counting the days."
Devereaux, who took his little sister on a Christmas shopping spree, is stoked about being back in Largo for the holidays.
"When you are back in town, you want to go do everything you can," said Devereaux, whose unit is heading to Afghanistan in April. "You want to hang out with your old friends. It's one massive party."
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When Staff Sgt. Shaw Helms first deployed to Iraq, his son, Ethan, was 8 days old.
Helm's wife, Crystal, helped him follow their first child's growth through e-mail and pictures.
But on Nov. 23, the 1998 Dunedin High graduate returned to home-base at Fort Stewart, Ga., after 13 months in Iraq.
While in the country, he was in charge of seven soldiers who would escort bomb detonating squads to potential explosives sites.
"It means a lot," Helms, 28, said of being home. "I got to come home and be with him (son Ethan) on the first holiday."
Helms spent part of the holiday with his parents in Clearwater.
"Being with family is the most important," he said.
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or email@example.com