Guardsman celebrates Thanksgiving at home

11/24/05 12:00AM By John Dillon
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As Vermonters celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family, there's one group that's especially grateful this holiday season.

Last week, 23 Vermont National Guardsmen returned home after almost a year in Iraq.

VPR's John Dillon visited one Guard family and has this report.

(Dillon) Ryan Pennington served as a medic in a military police company. He spent the last 11 months in northern Iraq. A year ago, he had just arrived in the Middle East and he celebrated Thanksgiving at a military base in Kuwait.

(Pennington) "All the MPs went together to the chow hall and sat down and ate Thanksgiving dinner together because we were all we had."

(Dillon) Pennington is home now, living at his grandmother's house in Shelburne. He's 19, off active duty status and clearly relishes the chance to return to a normal life with his family and girlfriend. He says he's looking forward to simple things: walking the dog, cooking a meal, setting his own schedule.

(Pennington) "To be honest with you, there's a lot I took for granted before. And being in a Third World country for so long and seeing what's been going on over there was really an eye opener. These people don't have much over there. A lot of them struggle, and a lot of them really do try hard, and a lot of them are thankful for what they have. But it just makes you realize how important everything is back home too when you see that going on."

(Dillon) Ryan's grandmother Janet Pennington sits at the end of the kitchen table with a broad smile on her face. She's planning a big turkey dinner for the family, with Ryan's favorite dessert.

(Janet Pennington) "Oh he loves banana cream pie. He just likes home cooking."

(Dillon) Janet Pennington is soft-spoken and chooses her words carefully. But her pride in her grandson and her relief at his homecoming are unmistakable.

(Janet Pennington) "So grateful that he's home, that he's well, and in good spirits. Very grateful."

(Dillon) She's also grateful that Ryan's girlfriend, Jenny Tallman, moved in to help out this past year after her husband died.

(Janet Pennington) "It was just a blessing to have her here, have someone around, have someone to talk to, and talk to Ryan on the phone together with her. It's been great having her here."

(Dillon) The family did talk on the phone a lot with Ryan as much as possible when he was away. Jenny Tallman says that she and Ryan lived through something that not many young couples experience. She found strength she didn't think she had.

(Tallman) "And I would go back and do it again if I had to, because that's how much you learn; that's how much I've learned. I found out something that people are dating probably don't find out, what it's like to live without that person for so long, and with the fear that they may never come back. You really find out how much you care about them and how important they are and the time that you have with them is. I'll never, ever take it for granted again. You can't."

(Dillon) Twenty-three Vermonters left a year ago as part of Ryan Pennington's military police company. Twenty-three returned. But nineteen servicemen with ties to Vermont have died in Iraq. A twentieth Vermonter died in Kuwait from natural causes while training to go to war. Pennington says Vermonters should never forget the sacrifice of the soldiers and their families.

(Pennington) "It's hard. You're heart really goes out to the families who lost people over there and that's who, I mean that's who we really should be thinking about this Thanksgiving and giving them as much support as possible."

(Dillon) Several hundred Vermont National Guard soldiers are expected home in December.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm John Dillon in Shelburne.
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