Pa. Guard units return home to crowds, heavenly scents

It wasn't only the green, green grass of home that was so welcoming. It was also the crisp fall air at Fort Dix, which smelled so sweet compared with the pervasive dust and oil fumes of Iraq.

"I'm in shock; I feel like I'm dreaming," said Sgt. Gene Donahue, 32, a father of two from the Fishtown section of Philadelphia who returned home yesterday with almost 300 other members of the Pennsylvania National Guard.

The troops, who landed at McGuire Air Force Base shortly before 9 a.m., represented the first large contingent of Pennsylvania Guard soldiers to return from a combat tour since World War II.

During the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, only small numbers of Guardsmen were called up. For the Korean War, state troops were deployed to Germany but not to the combat zone.

The Pennsylvania Guard has had close to 3,000 soldiers in Iraq for months. Nineteen have been killed, and about 170 have been wounded seriously enough to be awarded the Purple Heart. In the next few days, several hundred more soldiers will be coming home.

The returnees said they had burst into applause when their MD-11 jumbo jet was within 25 feet of hitting the McGuire runway, a few miles from Fort Dix.

Donahue had made up his mind last winter that he would never make it home alive. He said that attitude helped him worry less each day when his platoon in Charley Company of the 103d Engineers went out on patrols to look for hidden bombs along the roads of north-central Iraq.

"I actually lived through that?" he said, shaking his head in amazement.

Fort Dix, to which the soldiers were transferred after landing, is the demobilization point for thousands of troops coming home from what typically are one-year deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Pennsylvania soldiers had expected not to be able to leave the base for six to 10 days while they underwent what Maj. Stuart Gillard, a base official, called a "decompression" program. This consists of, among other things, a physical evaluation and counseling.

The soldiers were surprised to learn that the base was so swamped with returning soldiers from various units that they would get a three-day pass to go home. They must return to Fort Dix on Monday.

Family members had been encouraged not to show up at the base yesterday. They were told that official welcome-home ceremonies will be held when the men are released to their armories in Philadelphia, Plymouth Meeting, Butler and Ford City.

"I couldn't wait," said Stephanie Myles, 22, a soldier's spouse from Allentown.

Two Vietnam War veterans were on hand. They recalled that when many troops returned from that war, they had not been greeted.

"We wanted to make sure, if nobody else was here, that these guys got a welcome," said Tom Jellick of the Vietnam Veterans of American chapter in Bordentown.

He need not have worried.

About 150 wives, mothers, children, siblings and others showed up, most of them to greet members of Alpha Company of the First Battalion of the 111th Infantry, a unit that lost six men in two actions three days apart in August.

Family members joined the USO in setting out cookies and waving flags, as the men arrived at Doughboy Gymnasium.

Rose Madison, whose grandson Stephen Madison is a member of Alpha Company, said: "I'm so happy. I have never prayed so much in my life since he was over there. After they got hit , it bothered me day and night. "

Two USO volunteers, who said they had greeted or sent off 40,000 troops since August last year, noted that returning soldiers these days seem more worn out than those of past months.

"I've seen them change in the last year," said Marilyn Darrone of Mount Laurel. "They look more tired now when they come in. "

Several soldiers mentioned the grass and the fresh air as the first signs of home that made them almost weep. "It's been a heck of a journey," said Spec. Eric Jarmon, 24, of Bensalem. "A heck of a journey."

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Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.