Thursday, September 2, 2004

Homecoming high art for Guard and families

324th Military Police Company
spent 15 months in Iraq

By John Kiesewetter
Enquirer staff writer

soldiers return
Gail Weyer, of Chillicothe, Ohio, greets her husband, Spc. Randy Weyer as he arrives at the Patrick
L. Kessler Ohio National Guard Armory in Middletown.

(Glenn Hartong/The Enquirer)
MIDDLETOWN - Spc. Dave Roby didn't waste a nanosecond when a TV news photographer asked the soldier to give his wife a homecoming kiss.

"Any time!" said Roby, as he hugged and kissed Nicole, literally sweeping her a foot off the ground.

Except for a two-week leave in March, the Fairfield Township couple hadn't been together in 18 months, since Dave's Ohio Army National Guard 324th Military Police Company mobilized for duty in Iraq.

With 15 months total in Iraq, the 324th had the longest combat zone duty by an Ohio National Guard unit since World War II, said Brig. Gen. Ronald Young, who greeted the troops.

And it felt like that to Roby, a Cincinnati area social worker who missed two of his five wedding anniversaries during duty in the Mideast. He clutched his wife tightly and whispered: "I don't want to let go."

Emotions overflowed Wednesday at the Patrick Kessler Guard Armorywhen nearly 1,000 people waving flags, flowers, handmade signs and balloons greeted the 60 soldiers.

Another 1,000 residents lined city streets, waving at the two buses escorted by five Middletown police cruisers, police said.

Yellow ribbons adorned every street lamp and utility pole along Main Street and Central Avenue

"It was awesome," said soldier Brad Magill of Middletown.

He had a front-seat view of the crowds, riding in the motorcade in a police car driven by his father, Middletown Police Sgt. John Magill.

Two police officers each from Middletown and Cincinnati were in the 324th, which mobilized for Iraq in February last year. Some of the soldiers, like Middletown Police Officer Nick Marconi, had spent most of the past 32 months on active duty, including airport security, before heading to Iraq in May 2003.

The one-year war zone duty was extended by three months last spring so the unit could provide convoy security outside Baghdad. All the soldiers returned unharmed.

"The last four months were very dangerous, just horrible, horrible," said Liz Marconi, Nick's mother.

Among those attending the brief homecoming ceremony Wednesday were Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher and Capt. Jim Whalen.

"We came up not just to thank (police officers) Joe Ruchti and Jerry Turner, but all of them. They're all back - and they all came back alive," Streicher said.

Earlier this year, Ruchti had told the Enquirer in an e-mail about how "very frustrating, trying and difficult" the three-month extension had been for the soldiers, their families and employers.

But with the ordeal finally over, the talk Wednesday was all about thanking families, friends, churches, scout groups and businesses for their support.

"Our heroes are our families and our loved ones... who held things together while we were gone. We thank all of you," said Capt. Rudolph Pringle III of Middletown, unit commander.

"I can't say enough for what the people back home here did for us. They kept us going," Roby said.

Before leaving Iraq, the soldiers were counseled on the potential difficulties in assimilating back to civilian life, said Capt. Nicole Gabriel, Ohio National Guard spokeswoman.

But on Wednesday, their primary focus was getting home.

"I just want to have dinner with my family," said Magill, who plans on re-enrolling at Miami University in January.

Minutes after the official ceremony ended, soldiers scattered with family members to grab their luggage and complete their memorable journey.

Dale Bogard III rode home to Fairfield in a stretch Humvee with a Butler County Sheriff's Department escort.

Duane Bucher of Navarre, near Massillon, climbed into the family van for the five-hour trip to Stark County.

At Ted's Rental, employees had hoisted a flag on a lift crane over a sign reading, "Welcome Back Troops" at their Central Avenue store.

"We felt we should thank them. They were over there risking their lives to protect us and keep the things we love," said employee Jeff Huntsbarger.

Young, Ohio National Guard assistant adjutant general, said Wednesday's celebration was bigger than most homecomings for Ohio National Guard units.

"They outdid themselves here - but they should have," Young said. "These soldiers had been over there for a very long time."


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