Vermont Guard members return home

12/16/05 12:00AM By Steve Zind
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(Host) Hundreds of members of the Vermont National Guard arrived home in a snowstorm Friday after a thirteen month deployment in the Kuwaiti desert.

The soldiers arrived from Camp Shelby, Mississippi aboard a series of flights that landed throughout the day.

VPR's Steve Zind was there when the first plane arrived.

(music plays)

(Zind) The first group of family and friends of the returning soldiers stamped off the snow and gathered in an air guard hanger at Burlington Airport in the early afternoon for the last long moments of a thirteen-month wait.

A guard band tried to make the time pass more quickly, departing from the usual military fare in honor of the season.

(more music plays)

(Zind) For a short while the long journey home was halted just a few thousand feet from its destination. Weather forced the plane carrying the soldiers to circle the airport until conditions improved enough to allow it to land.

Karen Whitney is waiting to greet husband Sergeant Larry Whitney. She drove up from Bennington on Wednesday just to make sure the storm didn't delay their reunion.

The couple won't be returning to the life they knew before his deployment. At 42, Larry Whitney has decided to leave the guard and return to the military full time.

(Karen Whitney) "While he was over in Kuwait he actually reenlisted into the regular army, so seventeen days after he gets home we're moving to Savannah, Georgia."

(Zind) The couple has been married for eighteen years. Asked what she's missed most about her husband's absence, the answer is quick and simple.

(Whitney) His absence (laughs) the whole thing!"

(Zind) Holly Christensen sits alone reading a book. She's an island of calm in the midst of the nervous tension here. This is the second time she's welcomed her husband back.

Specialist Bret Christensen was also a member of force Red Leg which returned from Iraq earlier this year.

(Holly Christensen) "When he came home he just really felt like he left things unfinished over there and had things that he could still contribute to the war in Iraq and what's going on. He felt like we don't have children right now and maybe if he went over it would mean that somebody with children wouldn't have to."

(Zind) In the four years they've been married, the couple has been apart more than they've been together. Christensen says her husband has talked about signing up to join the guard unit currently serving in Iraq. It's something they'll talk about when they get home.

In the final minutes before the soldiers arrive, the crowd lines both sides of the wide hanger doors. Many hold hand-made signs with a soldier's name. One sign simply bears the word happy in bright red letters.

Finally the doors open and the soldiers emerge from the snow wearing pale desert camouflage.

(bell rings, crowd cheers)

(Zind) For a brief expectant moment the soldiers search for familiar faces as the crowd closes around them. Then the wait is over.

Surrounded by his wife and her family Specialist Blake Levinsohn has two quick thoughts about what he'll remember most about the deployment.

(Levinsohn) "Lots of sand! I definitely made some lifelong friends and it's good to be home."

(Zind) The welcome home ceremony is brief. As the soldiers and their families file out into the snow, Specialist Laura Wells of Middlebury beams at her five-year-old daughter Emma and says that for her, the most memorable part of the deployment is the end of it.

(Wells) "Coming home. This has been amazing!"

(Zind) About 450 members of the Vermont Guard are still deployed in the Iraq war. Their families hope to welcome them home in the coming year.

For Vermont Public Radio I'm Steve Zind in South Burlington.

(Host) The last of the four flights carrying members of the Vermont guard is scheduled to arrive at Burlington Airport late tonight.

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