Home at last Hundreds cheer return of Maine troops from Iraq

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AUGUSTA – Hundreds of friends and relatives cheered loudly, waved flags and hoisted welcoming signs as Maine Army National Guard troops filed into the Augusta Armory on Thursday following a year-long tour of duty in Iraq.

Gov. John Baldacci was among the first to greet the soldiers as they walked single-file into the armory and took their places on a stage with a huge American flag as a backdrop and military music filling the air.

The 152nd Maintenance Company arrived an hour-and-a-half behind schedule, heightening the anxiety of wives, children and others who waited for their loved ones to return.

Finally, a police escort with sirens and flashing lights appeared, leading three buses carrying about 130 soldiers. The crowd lining one side of Augusta’s busy Western Avenue waved flags and held up signs welcoming the troops, who left Fort Dix, N.J., early that morning.

One of those waiting inside the armory was Sue Grant of Augusta, whose daughter Sarah and husband Tim were stationed outside Baghdad. Grant had not seen her husband, a staff sergeant, and her daughter, who has the rank of specialist, since they were on leave in August.

“I’m excited but nervous,” Grant said before the troops’ arrival. Asked if the family had big plans when the two return, Grant said, “All I know is that Tim wants a big Easter dinner.”

Crystal Breton of Sidney said she kept in close contact with her husband, Dale, via Web cam and Internet, and that he seemed “very upbeat about everything” even though he had to leave his three children, who are 15, 12 and 11, behind.

“It was a big relief when I knew he was safely in Kuwait” when the deployment came to an end, said Breton. “It was a bigger relief when he called from New Jersey.” But she said the feeling Thursday, with only minutes before her husband’s arrival, was “very overwhelming.”

During its deployment, the unit’s primary mission was to provide security and protection operations for Camp Liberty northeast of the Baghdad airport.

Baldacci was joined by several legislators at the welcoming ceremony, but the politicians stayed away from speechmaking. The governor released a brief statement saying he was “honored to be here on this extremely happy day.”

“These folks served their country well and have made the state of Maine proud,” Baldacci’s statement said.

U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, who met with members of the 152nd when she traveled to Iraq last month, said she joined people across Maine in welcoming the unit home.

The soldiers “brought honor upon themselves by serving in vital missions,” said Snowe, R-Maine, who added that their families “also know the meaning of sacrifice.”

On a sadder note, Baldacci ordered that U.S. and Maine flags be flown at half staff on Saturday, the day of Army Spc. Dustin James Harris’s funeral service. Harris, of Patten, died from injuries suffered when a roadside bomb exploded in Iraq on April 6. He was a member of the 172nd Brigade Support Battalion of Fort Wainwright, Alaska.

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