Seven members of Danville-based Guard unit return from Iraq

April 28, 2004|HERB BROCK

LEXINGTON - Sgt. John Williamson was standing in the middle of a circle of friends and family in the baggage claim area at Bluegrass Field Tuesday night, exchanging hugs, kisses and pats on the back. Clutching one of Williamson's hands was his 9-year-old son, Cody, waiting patiently for the adults to quiet down so he could say something to his dad.

Cody finally found an opening and went for it. He looked up at his father and said, "So what've you been doing?"

Williamson smiled, shook his head while patting his son's and said, "Where do I start?"

Williamson could start with that time in February 2003 when he and 14 other members of the Danville-based Kentucky Army National Guard 217th Quartermaster Detachment Water Purification Unit were mobilized, dispatched to Ft. Campbell, Ky. and Ft. Lewis, Wash., for training and then deployed to the Middle East a few weeks later for a one-year tour of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom.


He could then talk about how he and his unit spent the last year weathering sweltering heat and sweater-penetrating cold and dodging mortar shells and rocks at their post, Camp Anaconda near Baghdad, and at Balad, Mosul, and other cities and villages where they purified and hauled water.

He could mention that he and his unit were able to withstand attacks from both meteorological and human enemies to achieve its mission of purifying water from the Tigris and other Iraqi rivers for use by American troops - more than 35 million gallons of it.

But Williamson's mission and that of seven of his colleagues Tuesday night was to reunite with their families. The only arms they were interested in were those of spouses, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and fathers and mothers. The only water they were dealing with was coming from tear ducts.

Family and friends welcome them home

And, like their part in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Mission Reunion was accomplished. Scores of family members and friends, many holding red, white and blue balloons and welcome home signs, came to Bluegrass Field about 7 p.m. to welcome Williamson, Sgt. 1st Class Mark Metcalf of Danville, Sgt. Eric Coots of Crab Orchard, Spc. Jeff Arms of Liberty, Spc. Nichole Bowling of Danville, Spc. Melissa Brown of Danville and Spc. Natasha Campbell of Lebanon. The seven soldiers arrived at 7:37 p.m. after Delta flights from Ft. Lewis to Cincinnati, then on to Lexington.

The eight other members of the 217th deployed to Iraq last winter will be returning home within the next two weeks.

While waiting for her husband's plane to come in, Sharissa Arms showed members of the media her homemade sign. With letters of various sizes and colors, the sign said: "Welcome Home Spc. Jeff Arms, 217th, We Love You, God Bless America." She was particularly anxious to see her husband because he was the only one of the seven in the group who was injured, albeit slightly.

"Rocks and mortar fire hit the windshield of the truck he was driving and his face was cut," said Sharissa Arms, a special education teacher at Phelps Elementary School in Liberty. "I know he wasn't hurt badly, but I want to see for myself.

"We have been in constant communication, through e-mails, phone calls and letters, but it's still not the same as being together," she said. "It's hard to believe I will be seeing him in just a few minutes."

When the minute of reunion came, Sharissa Arms was pleased that her husband was in one piece and his face barely showed the effects of the rock and mortar incident. He was just pleased to be home, or close to it. "We were really never in a battle or anything like that, but when my truck got rocked and there was mortar fire around us, that reminded us how dangerous the situation was, that we had to be alert at all times," said Arms. "It also reminded us how good it was going to be, to be home, safe and sound."

While Lynn Isaacs of Danville was waiting for her daughter, Spc. Brown, to arrive, she held Brown's daughter, Kayla, 3, and recalled Mother's Day 2003.

"That was about the time Melissa and the rest of the unit was going to be in Iraq, and the fact that it was Mother's Day just added to the feelings Kayla and I were having," said Isaacs. "I was 'celebrating' the day without my daughter and Kayla was 'celebrating' it without her mother."

But there was real celebrating Tuesday night when Brown reunited with her mother and daughter, and Isaacs said there will be even more festivities when the three are together for Mother's Day 2004.

"It will be great to be with Kayla and Mom on Mother's Day. I know it will be a lot safer for me than it was last Mother's Day," said Brown.

"Although we were never caught in a battle or anything real life-threatening like that, you never felt totally safe," she said. "We had to watch each other's backs 24-7."

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