Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Reserves receive hero's welcome

Homecoming: Newly minted veterans return from Iraq war

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Corporals Dan Smith and Zephar Keehner of the Fourth Marine Division sign autographs on the back of an American Flag for John McMahon, 9, of Coleraine Twp.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
They gathered Monday at the Marine Reserve Center in Walnut Hills - gray-haired men who once wore the uniform, a freckle-faced boy, wives and mothers and sweethearts - to welcome home heroes.

Eight days after their return from the war in Iraq, more than 100 Marines of Communications Company, Headquarters Battalion, 4th Marine Division were there in their desert camouflage and the high-top boots that helped keep the sand fleas at bay. They ate pizza and had their backs slapped and their hands shook by civilians grateful for their service overseas.

"To come back to this kind of welcome is something special," said their commanding officer, Maj. Anthony Capitello. "It's outstanding."

The open house was also a way for the reservists to thank those who had supported them and their families while they were away. That included a Girl Scout troop that sent them a half ton of cookies and an automotive service company that fixed broken-down cars for Marine families.

The Marine reserve company, which specializes in setting up communications systems under combat conditions, returned to Cincinnati June 15 to a tumultuous welcome at Sawyer Point, after a week at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The Marines were given five days leave to be with families and friends. Monday, they were back on active duty for another week of "demobilization" before they return to their homes and civilian jobs for good - or at least until the next call-up.

On Monday, there was a family-picnic atmosphere, with local restaurants providing free pizza, chili dogs, cookies and soft drinks.

Nine-year-old John McMahon of Colerain Township has an uncle who serves in the unit. Monday, the boy ran Marine to Marine to gather autographs on the back of his cardboard American flag.

"They're my heroes," John said.

They were heroes, too, to the men of the Cincinnati and Batavia detachments of the Marine League, an organization for Marine veterans. Many of them served in Korea and Vietnam and did not come home to the exultant reception that the newly minted Iraq veterans have found.

"They earned it," said Tom Bravard of Batavia, commandant of Leatherneck Detachment 393 in Clermont County. "They did their duty. That's what Marines do."

Lance Corp. Chris Childers of Hebron, Ky., came home to his mother, Mihwa, and his 16-year-old sister, Lisa. But he will have to wait a while until he sees his father, Charles Curtis Childers. The elder Childers is a sergeant in the Air Force Reserve; he was called to active duty about a month after his son shipped out for the Persian Gulf.

"He's in Oman now; he's doing OK," Chris Childers said. "It's very strange; me coming back and him still over there. And hard on my mom. But we both do what we have to do."

Once the company arrived in Kuwait, it was split up into several squads, which were assigned to regular Marine units.

Lance Corp. Alex Harnish of Dayton, a 25-year-old radio operator, ended up riding into Baghdad and seeing one of the palatial estates of Saddam Hussein in Tikrit.

What he saw was "the kind of extreme poverty that people in this country can't even imagine," Harnish said.

"There is such a wide gap in the distribution of wealth there," said Harnish, sitting at one of the long tables in the reserve center, eating buffalo wings. "The poor are extremely poor, the rich, extremely rich. It makes you appreciate what we have in this country."

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