May 18, 2004 – Amid a sea of well wishers — families, friends, children, loads of children, eyes wide, smiles shy — 54 soldiers of the 631st Engineer Team touched Virgin Islands soil Tuesday morning for the first time since last July, when they were dispatched to Puerto Rico to train for duty in Afghanistan.
The families had been waiting to hug their loved ones for an hour or more, which was as nothing compared to the last nine months. And hug they did. The grinning soldiers were overwhelmed with hugs, tears and joyous yelps as they marched into the Cyril E. King Airport terminal to the tune of the traditional "Engineers' Song," played by the 73rd Army Band.
Balloons, flowers, fruit baskets, noisemakers and small flags flowed among the 300 or more anxious civilians gathered in waiting.
Akira Haynes, 3, and her brother Ajayi, 8, sat silently, eyes straight ahead, hardly fidgeting, as they awaited their mother, Spc. Caroline Marie Pickering, 38. "They are too afraid to move right now," their grandmother, Christina Pickering, said as the group sat with tiny classmates of Akira's from the Eden Daycare Center, holding a big sign welcoming her mom.
Once Pickering appeared, all that composure was lost as the children leapt into their mother's arms. It was a scene repeated over and again as families reunited. "Here, here I am, come," the excited children cried. Wives and husbands reached out from the crowd. "Thank God, you're here," echoed throughout the small terminal area set aside for the troops' reception.
Not all the troops came off the aircraft. Spc. Debra Davis of St. Croix sat anxiously awaiting her comrades. "I was over there, too," she said, "but I had to come back early." Davis was as excited at seeing her fellow soldiers as the families awaiting the troops. Although she didn't explain at first the reason she returned home, it became apparent when Davis, a single mother, said she has five children ranging from 21 years to 10 weeks old.
Davis, 40, said she had no complaints about the Afghanistan duty, "though I would rather have been stationed closer to home." She said she did everything from pouring concrete to plumbing. "It was really hot, and there were so any flies. It was too hot to sweat; it dries on you before you can wipe it off," she said. "After a while you don't feel the heat, because you are too busy, always building something."
She said they slept in tents filled with about 100 people. The only scare she had was when she first arrived a missile went off "about 50 yards away, but nobody was hurt." She said the unit had little contact with the Afghan people.
"It was not encouraged for the troops, especially women, to talk with them, for our own safety," Davis said. However, "I did talk to one male. His English was very good. He wanted to know what it's like to live in the U.S."
Davis likes her career. "I have seven more years, and I will stay," she said. "I have been able to travel to places I never could have gone otherwise — I've been to Germany four times for training and to Italy, too."
After initial greetings were completed, or at least put at bay for a while, the group stood in formation for a formal welcoming ceremony with remarks by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and National Guard officers. Maj. Gen. Cleave McBean, the VING adjutant general, was clearly relieved to have his charges back home safe and sound.
"This is the first time any unit from the V.I. has been deployed and returned as a unit in the 30 years of the National Guard's existence, " he said. "This not only shows we are part of the global picture, but we are the best deployed out of Puerto Rico. I feel like a parent with children coming back from the war. I know exactly how you families feel."
McBean continued: "The 54 soldiers in this unit went to Kandahar and did plumbing, carpentry, even dispatched the forward operation to bases. From what I gather, the Afghanistan people are better off because of you." The remark was answered with many cheers and noisemakers blowing loud.
The Engineer Team departed last Sept. 3 for Afghanistan after having trained in Puerto Rico from last June. The unit was assessed as the most committed and disciplined in the mobilization training camp at Santiago, Puerto Rico.
Returning from Afghanistan, the unit arrived on Puerto Rico last Thursday, where the soldiers spent five days undergoing demobilization procedures at Camp Buchanan.
One of the most eagerly awaited soldiers was Jahmel Leonard, a member of the Legislature's public affairs staff. The 24-year-old, 6 foot 7 inch Leonard wasn't difficult to spot in the crowd. He was greeted with a 15-foot brightly lettered banner welcoming him home, along with flags and noisemakers.
Perhaps the happiest to see Leonard was Elise Frazer, his mother, and Jahlima, 21, one of Leonard's six siblings. Looking every bit the awaiting mother, Frazer, nearly 6 feet tall herself, was resplendent in a pink and purple dress and hat.
"He would call home every Tuesday," she said. "We've always been in touch, and he has seemed in good spirits. He was offered a seven-day pass, but he decided he would wait and come home once and for all." She added, "Everybody loves him."
Bishop Amos Carty was craning his neck over the crowd looking for a parishioner, Sgt. Eyston Austin. "He would call us on Sundays during service, so we all got a chance to talk with him," Carty said, dodging off as he spotted Austin in the crowd.
An out-of-uniform Staff Sgt. Pedrito George, dressed in khakis and a red VING T-shirt, circulated through the crowd grinning from ear to ear and giving bear hugs to one soldier after another. He appeared to know every one of them.
"It's a joy, man; it's wonderful to have them back home.," George said. "We're crying tears of joy. Everybody is safe and happy."
Suffering from a knee injury, George wasn't able to accompany the unit. "These are like my kids," he said. "I'm what you would call their mentor, their motivator." George trained the unit both in the Virgin Islands and on the mainland.
In Afghanistan, "they had some conditions," he said. "The weather got really cold, but they adjusted to it. And they're home. It's such a joy."
The 631st Engineer Team Returnees
Spc. Paul Adjodha
Spc Benjamin Alicea
Sgt. Eyston Austin
Sgt. Bernard Burke
Spc. Keith Chambers
Spc. Anmarie Charles
Capt. Clifford E. Crooke
Spc. Lindon Dagou
Spc. Debra Davis
Sgt. Marcus Defoe
Spc. Alston Dore
Spc Dwight Dunwell
Sgt. Austin Forbes
Spc Vincia George
Spc. Garry Green
Spc. Delicia Greenaway
Spc. Maurice Greene
Spc. Nathan Harris
Spc. John Hazell
Spc. Kareem Henley
Spc. Keith Hodge
Spc. Brenda Holder
Staff Sgt. Herbert Hughes
Sgt. Oriel Isles
Spc. Rehalio Jacobs
Sgt. Jerry James
Staff Sgt. Atacha Laurencin
Spc. Cecil Lawrence
Pfc. William Lawrence Jr.
Spc. Jahmel Leonard
Spc. Jason Lewis
Sgt. Marvin Matthew
Sgt. Eustace Maynard
Spc. James Myers
Sgt. John Narcisse
Sgt. Angel Nieves
Sgt. Ellis Pemberton
Staff Sgt. Burton Peterson
Sgt. Steven Phillip
Spc. Caroline Pickering
Sgt. First Class Alford Richards
Staff Sgt. Robert N. Richardson
Spc. Francis Romain
Spc. Willet Ryan
Sgt. Cynthia St. Luce
Spc. Joseph Samson
Spc. Rendell Thomas
Chief Warrant Officer Bryon Todman
Spc. Mitchell Todman
Spc. Devon Tyson
Sgt. Carlos Viches
Sgt. Corbin Webster
Spc. Orson Webbe
Sgt. Diane Wescott
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