52 area soldiers return from Iraq

Saturday, November 11, 2006
Family and friends in Cape Girardeau waited with anticipation for their loved ones Friday. About 50 National Guard soldiers returned from Iraq after being gone for 15 months. (Diane L. Wilson)

Guardsmen said that, after a year away from home, Veterans Day means more to them than it did before.


Southeast Missourian

1st Lt. Allan Sharrock scanned a sea of waving U.S. flags, wild applause and tender moments between reunited loved ones Friday as he and more than 50 area National Guard soldiers returned home after more than a year in Iraq.

He just hopes that today -- Veterans Day -- those feelings of patriotism, sacrifice and duty don't dissipate into an ocean of discontent, forgetfulness and apathy.

"It's not going to be just another day for us anymore," said Sharrock, who is from Sedgewickville, Mo. "And it shouldn't be for everyone else."

Veterans Day was the underlying theme of the day as crowds turned out to greet the members of the Kansas City, Mo.-based 110th Engineer Battalion. Fifty-two soldiers from Southeast Missouri units transferred to the 110th as part of the yearlong mission in Iraq, and most will transfer back, according to military officials.

"Veterans Day is just a lot more meaningful now," said Sgt. Maj. Matt Jenkins of Cape Girardeau. "It's going to be a special time."

A crowd of several hundred friends and family members eagerly waited around noon Friday as a bus rolled into the National Guard armory at 2626 Independence St. in Cape Girardeau. The crowd roared with laughter and yells and hugged each other when the police-escorted bus came into sight. Hundreds of red, white and blue balloons were released as the men and women shuffled off the bus.

Banners with phrases like "Let the Good Times Roll," "Hats off 2 U" and "We Love U" greeted the soldiers.

Catherene Morrill, whose son-in-law Spc. James Stephens came home from Iraq on Friday, said people should look at Veterans Day today as a blessing. "It's such a special day," she said. "It's all the more special this year now that our boy has come home."

Stephens' uncle, Ron Carr, said Veterans Day will be a lot different than when he returned home from the Vietnam War. "I'm so proud that people are turning out to support these guys," Carr said with welled-up eyes. "We didn't have that. ... I'm as proud as I can be that he went and came back."

Eight-year-old Kirsten Stephens fought back tears as she hugged her daddy, who couldn't manage the same feat.

Similar scenes took place across the armory parking lot.

"They're such heroes today," said Jerome Seyer, who watched on as the families and friends reconnected. "This is their day. This is their moment. The National Guard used to be thought of as a second-class military. Not today. Not ever."

After a brief ceremony with local dignitaries and Guard leaders, the soldiers were released to go back home. A moment of silence was held for the four members of the 110th who died in action. None of those was from the Cape Girardeau area.

Before they were dismissed, Sgt. Maj. Matt Jenkins told the crowd that the soldiers wanted to thank them. "People are calling us heroes today," he said. "That may be so. But heroes have heroes as well. And that's you. Our family and friends that supported us while we were gone. Thank you."

The primary mission of the soldiers of the 110th while serving in Iraq was roadway clearance and maintaining supply routes for military convoys and civilian traffic, said 1st Lt. Sharrock. He was a platoon leader, overseeing more than 20 men.

The soldiers found and cleared improvised explosive devices during their tour in Iraq. During their deployment, the three companies under the command of the 110th Engineer Battalion found more than 900 explosive devices, according to military reports.

"It was very dangerous," Sharrock said. "Very high stress. It was the most stressful and the most dangerous job in Iraq."

On Friday, Sharrock was ready to resume his life as a civilian, leaving behind talk of roadside bombs, Iraq and humidity.

"Tomorrow," he said, grinning, "I'm going deer hunting."


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