Members 0f 1086th return from Iraq

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 20, 2003

All eyes focused on the speck growing larger in the distant sky. The speck was, in fact, a Miami Air jet bringing home sons and daughters, husbands and wives, parents and nephews from halfway around the world.

On Wednesday morning, the more than 60 members of the 1086th Transportation Company returned from Iraq after an eight-month deployment.

Welcome wake-up calls

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Linda Tarver seemed awfully alert as the speck became more recognizable &045; especially since she received an unexpected 4:30 a.m. wake-up call.

At that time, after more than eight months serving in Iraq and more than nine hours on a plane home, her son, Thomas, and his fellow National Guard soldiers had landed on U.S. soil in Maine.

Six hours later, Tarver and dozens of other friends and family members were in place and ready when the airplane’s door opened and the relieved soldiers emerged.

&uot;Feel that?&uot; said one soldier to another. &uot;That’s humidity.&uot;

&uot;Yeah,&uot; said the other. &uot;And the smell of pine trees.&uot;

&uot;Oh, it feels great to be home &045; different, but great,&uot; Francis Duncan said moments after stepping off the plane.

&uot;It’s wonderful,&uot; said Spc. Jennifer Lyles. &uot;When I see (my family), I’m going to give them a big hug.&uot;

&uot;Words can’t describe it,&uot; said Sgt. Antonio Ferguson of Ville Platte. &uot;We’re just glad to be home.&uot;

Then they were shipped off in three buses to a debriefing they would undergo before meeting their families for real at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at Fork Polk.

As the buses made their way back up the runway, about 30 family members on the other side of the fence let out a cheer, the soldiers waving and smiling in return.

And Tanya Jenkins, mother of Spc. Michael Jenkins, ran to call on her cell phone the few family members who weren’t there to see Michael in person.

&uot;Yes, yes,&uot; she said, not stopping to catch her breath. &uot;I saw him.&uot;

Tears and cheers

The cheers were music to the troops’ ears as they marched in formation to the gym at 1 p.m., a half hour ahead of schedule and just after the last Miss-Lou residents made their way in.

Catching a glimpse of the soldiers through another door, more than 250 well-wishers burst into raucous applause and marched inside, some trying in vain to hold back smiles of their own.

Upon the troops’ dismissal, family and friends spilled over the bleachers to, in some cases, almost tackle the soldiers they had missed for months.

For Michael Jenkins, it was the moment of truth &045; would his young son know him? Then 2-year-old Caleb broke into a delighted smile and was lifted into his father’s arms.

&uot;I was afraid he wouldn’t know me,&uot; Jenkins said with relief, embracing each family member in turn.

Around him, grandfathers proudly shook the hands of grandsons and children got swept up in soldiers’ arms.

Francis Duncan said his wife, Jia, told him that when she told their daughter, 4-year-old Tia, he was coming home, Tia surprised them by shouting &uot;Praise the Lord.&uot;

&uot;For me, it’s like a dream come true,&uot; Jia Duncan said.

&uot;It hasn’t sunk in yet,&uot; Robert Bailey Jr. said, with a smile, of returning home. During the months in Iraq, all he could think of was home.

&uot;It was a good thing we did, and the Kuwaitis and the regular people in Iraq were so nice, but the living conditions were horrible &045; it was so hot.&uot;

Still, he said, the 1086th was tremendously lucky. With missiles and rifles being fired at regular intervals at the convoys during missions from Kuwait to Iraq, &uot;it’s just by the grace of God nobody got shot,&uot; he said.

But Sgt. Kathryn Brooks of Natchez said she doesn’t want local people to forget to pray hard for all the troops still in Iraq &045; and she won’t forget them, either.

&uot;It’s just fantastic&uot; to be home, said Gulf War veteran Brooks, who was met by her children: 7-year-old son Brandon and a teary-eyed Kendra, 11.

Still, after serving with soldiers from all over the country, she said, &uot;we’re leaving people we know behind.&uot;

A different kind of day

It was, in many ways, the reverse of Feb. 10, the day when the same families saw their family members off at the armory in Vidalia. That day was marked with tears and a cold, stormy sky to match the mood.

On Wednesday, the order of the day was bright sunshine despite the whipping winds &045; and exciting voices and smiles.

For Tracey Bailey of Ferriday, the joy of seeing the soldiers was doubled, since two of her three sons, Robert Jr., 26, and Matthew, 20, were both serving with the 1086th.

Matthew was set to start college in just days &uot;before he was called to active duty,&uot; she said. And her middle son is also in the military, stationed at the Pentagon.

Bailey is one of the lucky ones &045; there were actually several among the families of the 1086th &045; whose soldiers had cell phones to call home throughout their time overseas.

&uot;Robbie usually does most of the talking,&uot; she said with a laugh. &uot;He says it’s his phone.&uot;

Those calls are welcome, especially on days that should be happy family occasions.

&uot;They both had their birthdays while they were over there,&uot; said Bailey, whose sons both had a special request for their belated celebrations &045; a trip to Outback Steakhouse.

A sense of closure

At the same time, others were gained a sense of closure. Staff Sgt. William Green, now of Texas but still with the 1086th, took a quiet moment to reflect on his homecomings.

Green served in Vietnam, and he got a different kind of &uot;welcome&uot; then. &uot;It was more of a protest. We got spit on. It took a lot out of me, being over there and coming back to that,&uot; he said.

But when he saw the veterans waiting for them in Maine, free cell phones in hand for them to use to call home, &uot;it brought tears to my eyes.&uot;

And the outpouring of emotion at Fork Polk &uot;is just outstanding,&uot; Green added, looking over at his wife of 22 years, who by then was shedding tears and thanking God her husband was home.

&uot;Now I can retire &045; everything’s been accomplished for me,&uot; Green said with a slow nod. &uot;It took 30 years, but I finally got my homecoming.&uot;