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When it comes to ceremony, pomp and circumstance, no one does it better than the United States Marine Corps.
Such was the case last week when my son’s Marine Air Wing squadron returned from a nearly seven-month deployment to Afghanistan. A few years back my family and I had attended David’s (now Corporal David Taylor II) graduation from boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. Anyone who has ever seen a Marine boot camp graduation ceremony will attest that it is unlike any other commencement exercise they have ever witnessed, from marching bands, to marching Marines (they will be QUICK to correct you if you call them “soldiers”) to the Devil Dog mascot it is at once patriotic, prideful and emotionally-moving.
My wife, Cheryl, and I took our 27-month-old granddaughter Elizabeth to meet her daddy when his squadron, VMM-162, returned to their home base at New River Air Station near Jacksonville, N.C. The day of arrival was my wife’s birthday so welcoming our son home and seeing him and his daughter together again turned out to be a wonderful birthday present for her.
Our son serves as an airframe mechanic with VMM-162, which is equipped with a relatively new military aircraft, the Osprey. A twin, tilt-rotor vehicle, the Osprey is both helicopter and airplane.
We had prepared a welcome banner for David that like many others were displayed on the fence at the entrance to the air station. Lizzy had added her handprints to the banner and repeated over and over that she thought the banner was “preddy!”
The parking lot outside the hanger where VMM-162 was due to return was filled to overflowing. That gave us an indication of the size of the crowd to expect when we went inside. We were accompanied by our good friend Cathy Kadeg, who in recent years called Trimble County home while her husband Tom was employed in construction at the LG&E Wises Landing Generating Station.
The hanger was wall to wall with people—family and friends of the returning squadron members. There were about 170 Marines in all returning from deployment Tuesday evening. Nearly 2,000 people were on hand to welcome them home.
Ruth Cady “Pie” Bell, the squadron’s Family Readiness Officer, and her staff had arranged for tables of food, souvenirs, games, craft activities for the children and a disc jockey with a wide variety of music to keep the party hopping. Many of the children, Lizzy included, danced to their hearts’ content as the evening wore on.
We had been told to expect the squadron at 4:30 in the afternoon but after several delays the sun had already set when we were told that the Marines were back on the base but had to go to the armory to turn in their weapons before they would arrive at the hanger. Finally, four large motor coaches rolled onto the flight line and the Marines filed from the buses into formation on the tarmac to the great cheers from the crowd. We were held back until the unit was dismissed by the base’s commanding officer, then there was pandemonium as the Marines rushed to meet their families and families rushed to embrace their Marines.
I had Lizzy on my shoulders when we went to meet Daddy. After worming my way through the crowd I finally reached my son. He did a double take upon seeing his little girl. In seven months she had grown and changed so much he almost didn’t recognize her.
“She’s not a baby anymore, she’s a little girl!” he said.
He told us that VMM-162 had been delayed leaving Afghanistan by a day as they had remained on base to participate in the somber ceremony of the transfer of the remains of six Marines who had lost their lives in a helicopter crash the week before.
Suddenly, the joy of our son’s return was tempered by the realization that for those six families a homecoming of a different sort awaited. My prayers for their comfort continue.
Seeing the crowd amassed at the hanger was “overwhelming,” my son said. “You can’t imagine how things we take so much for granted here suddenly take on new meaning. The smell of trees—where we were there was only sand, no trees, no flowers.”
Walking along a Wilmington, N.C. beach the next day he observed that we Americans have been blessed with so much that we don’t appreciate and take for granted. It is this freedom that he and all in military uniform fight to preserve and prtotect.
He cuddled his little girl and they played and laughed.
Cheryl and I stood at a distance and watched with misty eyes.
“Daddy”—our son—was home!