National Guard unit comes home to Durham after year in Iraq, Afghanistan

National Guard unit returns after a year in Iraq, Afghanistan

ablythe@newsobserver.comJuly 2, 2012 

— Emotions ran high in the gathered crowd as two big buses pulled into view of the National Guard Armory on Wednesday afternoon. Some people even reported goose bumps and chills in the steamy afternoon heat.

The North Carolina Army National Guard’s 1452nd Transportation Company had just returned from a 12-month deployment, and family and friends celebrated Independence Day outside the Durham Armory with welcome-home signs, open arms and tight hugs for the 80 soldiers.

Over the past year, the men and women had been at Fort Bliss, Texas, then to Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, and back to Fort Bliss.

The unit was responsible for relocating heavy equipment. Some were among the final convoy to leave Iraq after a nine-year war left more than 100,000 dead — some 4,500 of which were American.

Kamaya Lee, an 8-year-old from Connecticut, had drawn a colorful sign for her uncle, Larry C. Powell, a guardsman from Ahoskie. She missed him, and she knew exactly what she wanted to tell him first when he got off the bus.

But Kamaya had to wait for the crush of family who rushed her uncle as he stepped into a world he had been away from for months. There were screams of delight, tears of happiness and long embraces.

Finally, the little girl was able to maneuver past her bigger relatives, hold up her card and get close to deliver her chosen words.

“I love you,” Kamaya said.

“Oh, I love y’all,” Larry Powell said to the large contingent of family that came to greet him.

Kishon Ward, 30, a guardsman and state Department of Corrections worker from LaGrange, hugged his 7-year-old daughter Kishya and his wife Valarie, who said the lonely nights were what bothered her most about his time away.

Home will be different

Cookies, sandwiches and cupcakes with flags, stars and gobs of fluffy frosting awaited the soldiers inside the Armory, but most were ready to head for home, ready to get on with family life that more than likely changed a lot while they were away.

Kristi Wagner, an assistant youth coordinator who works in the National Guard Family Programs office in Nashville, watched with delight as families reunited outside the Armory.

But whether it is that day or weeks later, many families realize that homecomings can bring an array of complex issues as the soldiers and the loved ones they left behind try to get used to each other again.

Family dynamics have changed and new routines have been developed.

The soldiers, who have lived very structured lives while deployed, some times have trouble fitting back into a world where their days are not mapped out for them.

“They’re so used to a standard routine of what they’re supposed to be doing,” said Wagner, “and their family has gotten used to a new type of normal while they’ve been gone.”

Not only are the homecomings difficult for spouses, there often are quandaries for teenage children who were forced to step up and take on more family duties while a parent was away.

They might have been doing such things as driving a younger sibling to school, Wagner said, “and now Dad wants to do it. That sometimes can create stress, and they don’t always let you know that it’s bothering them.”

Help settling in

With that in mind, a variety of services are available for the veterans and their families.

The National Guard offers Yellow Ribbon Programs at 30, 60 and 90 days after the soldiers’ units return from the deployment. There, soldiers have access to family counseling, job search help and other extensive programs.

Michael Harrell, a 28-year-old from Henderson, said things would be “a little bit different” for him as he settles back into a life without a unit he also considers family.

He will return to his job at Wal-Mart and try to get his fill of food from Bojangles’, the cuisine he missed most during his deployment. He will remember what it was like to be one of the last units to leave Iraq, hope the situation there improves and consider another deployment soon if the National Guard calls him.

“I wouldn’t mind that,” Harrell said.

Kevin Spence, a 21-year-old from Raleigh, has a lot to get used to after his overseas deployment.

On June 20, he became a father. On Wednesday, he beamed as he held his daughter Olivia Naomi Spence for the first time.

“This is my beautiful daughter,” Spence said with pride. Samantha Riegel, her mother, flashed a wide grin, too. She, too, is in the 1452nd unit, and had only been overseas for a short time when they found out she was five weeks pregnant. She returned home.

He remained overseas, often frustrated by the difficulties of communicating, though he was able to Skype on the day she was born.

Spence, Riegel said, would find out quickly about some of the new duties of fatherhood such as changing diapers.

“I’m ready,” Spence said.

Spence said his homecoming on the Fourth of July would be a day he will remember.

“There’s nothing you can do right now,” Spence said, his newborn in his arms, “to make this day any better.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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