By Terry Talbert The Record Herald
Published: Tuesday, September 11, 2007 10:14 AM CDT
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In the photo at left, Scott Franek of Chambersburg is met with open arms by son Trevor and Trevor’s grandfather. At right, Cole Baker holds his 8-month-old daughter Hailey.
CHAMBERSBURG - They were at the National Guard Armory in Chambersburg before 9 a.m. Monday - children waiting for their fathers and mothers, mothers and fathers waiting for their daughters and sons.
They were gathered to welcome home from Iraq the more than 140 men and women of the Army National Guard's 324th Military Police Battalion. The troops had been in the Baghdad area for a year - some on their second tour of duty. It was, family members said, time that they came home.
As the buses bringing them to Chambersburg from Fort Dix finally pulled around the corner and within sight of the building more than two and a half hours later, the soldiers could be seen at the vehicle's windows. What greeted their eyes were a high school band, a larger-than-life American flag flying from a Grove crane and, most importantly, flag-waving, sign-carrying family members and friends flanking the area where they would step off the bus.
Their first steps were onto a red carpet, but the men and women of the 324th hardly seemed to notice. They were more intent on finding familiar faces. It was but moments for most before the hugging and kissing and, in some cases, the crying began.
Nicole Flegel of Quincy had been waiting patiently for her partner, Cole Baker. She was relatively calm on Monday because the night before, she had gone to Fort Dix to welcome him back. She simply could not wait another day to see him.
Nicole was at battalion headquarters in Chambersburg with the couple's 8-month-old daughter Hailey and with Cole's father. She said she and Cole had been together for about a year and a half, and his absence had been rough on her.
She explained that Cole couldn't be home for his daughter's birth, and when he did get back for two weeks' leave in March, it was all family members could do to pry him away from his baby. Then it was back to Iraq.
“It's been stressful, very stressful,” Nicole said. “He left in September and Hailey was born on Jan. 12 ... She only saw her dad for two weeks.”
Cole's father Dale Baker said his youngest son turned 21 in March.
“He told me he'd be ready to go back again, but that was before his baby was born,” Dale said. “I'm sure Cole would be ready to serve his country, but whether he would want to go back to Iraq now, I don't know.”
“I can't wait to see him. What a relief,” Dale said.
It wasn't long before Cole walked off the bus and made a beeline for his family. The first thing he did was take his baby girl in his arms.
Scott Franek, 36, of Chambersburg also had a child to greet when he came home. Scott found his family in the crowd, greeted his wife Carla and scooped up his delighted 5-year-old son Trevor in his arms.
Scott has been in the Army Guard Reserves for 18 years. He is a career man. This was his second tour of duty in Iraq.
Before the buses arrived, Carla had talked about how difficult it was for their son to not have his Daddy at home. “It's been very hard,” she said. “Especially Trevor's going to kindergarten and his Daddy not being there. He yells for his father. We counted the days (until his return), but they kept changing.”
Trevor, asked how much he missed his daddy, said, “Hundreds.” He added that the first thing he would do when he saw his father was “fight him.” His grandfather, who was trying to keep Trevor occupied during the long wait, explained that Trevor likes to roughhouse with his dad.
When Scott got off the bus, however, there was no kidding around. Trevor, a huge smile on his face, buried his head in his father's shoulder and clung to him with a death grip.
Mom comes home
Marissa Boyers, 14, of Chambersburg stood waiting quietly for her mother, Staff Sgt. Jamie Boyers. She held a stuffed Garfield toy - a toy that symbolized their connection while her mom was in Iraq.
“She would photograph it in different places she went while she was there, and then send me the pictures,” Marissa explained. “She sent him back home so he'd be here when she got back.”
Jamie Boyers is a single mom, and her daughter stayed with her aunt and uncle while her mother was in the war zone. When Jamie reconnected with Marissa on Monday, she was proud of what she saw.
“The one thing that probably bothered me most was not having any control over what was happening back here,” Jamie said. “So you have to trust your family to take care of things.”
Jamie looked at her daughter and smiled. “Judging from what I see, they did a pretty good job.”
While they waited on a hot, humid day for their soldiers to come home, family members of other soldiers talked about their loved ones and their feelings.
Don and Rochelle Sharpe of Carlisle were waiting for their son Christopher, who turned 21 while in Iraq. Rochelle said they were able to spend two weeks with him while he was on leave in April. “The time went too fast,” Rochelle said. “Way too fast ... I'm very excited. I've been waiting a long time for this.”
Don said the fact that Christopher is the couple's only son made it particularly tough on them. “It's very hard for the parents, but it's hard for them too,” he said. “They're going through certain things and you may be too, and you try to work those things out.”
The Sharpes said that their son told them about how much the gift boxes meant to the troops - how much that boosted morale. Still, there were times he said he felt down.
“It was rough for him,” Don said. “It was his first time over there. There was a lot of adjustment. He told us that he was really disappointed that he didn't have a Thanksgiving. He said he was on duty that day, and when he got back, all the food was already gone.”
Dan Bentz of Dillsburg was there to greet his son, Sgt. Steven Bentz. “I'm anxious,” he said. “It's overdue. I last saw him at Christmas.”
Steven's aunt, Louise Schwalm, exuded happiness. “I'm elated,” she said. “Thank God he's back (in the country). I'm so happy and relieved. What am I going to do when I see him? I'm going to scream!”
Steven is Dan Bentz's only son. “That makes it worse,” he said of the waiting.
One woman said that her son called when the unit arrived back in the United States to tell her how happy they were to set foot on American soil.
“He said they got down and rolled around in the grass - they were so happy to see something green,” she said. “He said there was nothing but brown and rocks and dirt in Iraq.”
The 324th MP Battalion, which went to Iraq in September 2006 after three months' training at Fort Bliss, Texas, was kept busy while in the Baghdad area. The soldiers assumed command of three National Guard companies and began their main mission, which was to operate a “theater interment facility” for more than 4,000 detainees.
Battalion troops, 20 of whom were women, also managed the warehouse in which property belonging to more than 20,000 detainees in Iraq was kept, and “managed all the detainee funds in theater, several million U.S. dollars and several billion in Iraqi dinars,” according to the Guard.
The soldiers opened the first juvenile detainee education center in Iraq - a school for more than 600 children age 18 and younger, established the first detainee work program in Iraq, and opened an Iraqi Corrections Officer training program.
While the work of the soldiers was meaningful, what they did in Iraq was not as important to the families as the fact that they survived their tour of duty and came home unscathed.
Don Sharpe, who served in Kuwait in the regular Army for a year from 1990 to 1991, knows some of what his son went through in Iraq. He also knows how dangerous duty can be. He may have best expressed the collective sentiment of the crowd in Chambersburg on Monday.
“I think what's really important ... I think we all should thank God that everybody in the group made it back safely - that no one was lost,” he said.