National Guard returns after year in Iraq

Published 3:07 am Monday, January 31, 2005

By By Adam Prestridge
A cold rain didn't dampen the spirits of Atmore residents and members of Alabama's National Guard 711th Signal Battalion Company A Friday afternoon.
In fact many of the troops felt it was one of the brightest days of their lives.
"This is the most beautiful, sunny day in a year," SSG Irma Jean Henderson of Atmore said. "We've have been waiting to get back home. All of us, our whole unit, came back home. God be the glory."
Henderson, who works with the Department of Corrections, said she is eager to spend time with her family and catch up on the happenings of the past year.
"I'm taking some time off before I even go back to work," Henderson said. "I'm going to spend time with my family. I'm not even thinking about work."
Atmore Mayor Howard Shell mirrored the troop's enthusiasm.
"The sun may not be shining, but this is one of the prettiest days I've ever seen," he said. "I want all of you to know that this town has prayed your safety since Jan. 5, 2004 when we sent you off. We are truly grateful that we brought all of you home."
Although temperatures slowly dipped into the mid-40s throughout the day accompanied by a light rain, family, friends and citizens braved the harsh winter weather as they lined the streets of downtown and in front of the National Guard Armory. Eleven-year-old Patrick Barnett of Molino, Fla. stood quietly in a desert battle uniform awaiting his father's return.
"I'm going to be happy to see him," Barnett said. "I plan on going fishing."
A majority of the people watching the homecoming in downtown were not there in hopes of seeing loved one gone for a year, they were there simply to show support for what the soldiers had done and welcome them to Alabama soil.
Melanie Kent and Wendy Stafford each brought their children, a set of twins each, to witness the homecoming.
"We don't actually have any family in the guard, we just came out to support the troops," Kent said.
Sue Clinner, Rhonda Shaw, Lucy Edwards and Ann Benner of the social club The Red Hat Society came out for the same reason.
"We just wanted to welcome the troops home," Clinner said.
Upon the troop's arrival on chartered buses, groups of loved ones quickly followed in behind the buses in anticipation of the first troops to step foot back home in Alabama. Eager to hug and kiss their loved one for the first time in a year, onlookers waited patiently for their troop to exit the bus with tear-filled eyes.
"I'm very glad to be home," SPC Jasper Freeman of Atmore said. "We spent a long time over there and we've been through a lot. I'm just glad to see my family again; I missed them a lot. We were only gone a year, but it felt more like three or four."
A huge gathering of family and friends awaited the troops in the National Guard Armory's auditorium where they stood at attention for a special program.
"Welcome home from your Family Support Group," Peggy Lane said during the program. "We're all so glad that you are all home and we want to thank you for you hard work this past year in getting back home safely. I ask you all to continue praying for the soldiers that stayed behind to finish up their jobs, let's not forget those that came home for medical reasons and let's pray for their full recovery."
The program also featured a speech from former 711th Signal Battalion Commander Col. Charles Lowery, who expressed his overwhelming pride for how the troops served the U.S.
"I was going to hold you here for a couple of three hours, but I'm not going to do it," he said. "God has already blessed all of us because you're home and don't you ever forget for one minute that there were thousands upon thousands of prayers that went up for you all while you were gone."
Operation Home Front under the umbrella of the Volunteers of America concluded the ceremony by presenting Company Commander Paul West a plaque in recognition of Company A's dedication and service to the country.
Following the ceremony, family and loved ones continued to reunite with the troops. For Mobile's SPC Winston Salter Sr., he met his twin babies, Winston III and Wynostonee, for the first time.
"It feels good to finally see them," Salter said.
Salter's wife Nebral found out she was pregnant just after her husband was sent off to war. The twins were born on Sept. 21.
"I was speechless when I found out," Salter said. "It's pretty rough on you because you're not there and you would like to be there because you don't know what's going on. I just had to hang in there."
As for Atmore's SPC Chris Rutherford he was just excited to be home.
"It's overwhelming," he said. "I'm proud to be back, it couldn't be any better to be home. I was very proud to be over there to serve my county in the manner I did. I feel like we made a big difference over there."
Although Company A didn't suffer any casualties in Iraq, Sgt. Terry Spillman of Bay Minnette returned home early after finding out he had cancer. He passed away in December. The troops dedicated their return to their fallen
"We'll always be dedicated to that man because of his courage and his dedication," SPC Bobby Lane of Atmore said. "We would just like to extend a welcome home to his family, which won't mean as much as me seeing my children today, but we love him."
(Managing editor Lee Weyhrich contributed to this article.)

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