Soldier's Interview

 "Thank You & Welcome Home 184th"
         ( Sacramento Airport ~ January 16, 2006)

Hugs & Kisses After Seeing War Up-Close

Recent Stories By Blair Anthony Robertson and Elizabeth Hume
Bee Staff Writers
Last Updated 5:52 am PST Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Story appeared on Page A1 of The Bee

Coming home
Hugs, kisses after seeing war up close
By Blair Anthony Robertson and Elizabeth Hume -- Bee Staff Writers
Last Updated 5:52 am PST Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Story appeared on Page A1 of The Bee
The shrieking and shouting, the first signs of tears and trembling hands,
began at 1:57 p.m. as men, women and children stood on folding metal chairs
Monday to peer over a tall fence onto the tarmac at Sacramento International Airport.

"They're on the ground," announced one woman, craning for a view.

Then came the roar. And more tears - tears of joy and anticipation and frayed nerves.
The chartered jet was in view, taxiing toward them.

War-weary California National Guardsmen were arriving after 18 months away from home -
a full year of it in the thick of combat in Iraq.
The returning guardsmen are members of the Modesto-based 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment,
which has seen some of the heaviest action and had one of the highest injury tolls
of any unit of its kind since the Korean War, authorities said.

"They assumed a frontline role, the likes of which we really haven't
seen since the Korean War," said National Guard Maj. Jon Siepmann.

On Monday, three flights touched down at Sacramento International Airport,
and others from the regiment arrived at Los Alamitos in Southern California,
where they were greeted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and
other elected officials. In all, more than 600 soldiers returned to California.

In its 18 months in Iraq, the 184th lost 17 soldiers and
sustained more than 100 casualties, Siepmann said. Of those killed,
10 were from California and the other seven were soldiers attached to the battalion.
Those who died were mostly victims of improvised explosive devices,
also called IEDs, Siepmann said.

The 184th was mobilized Aug. 16, 2004, to relieve elements of the
U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division in southeastern Baghdad.
The battalion conducted more than 6,800 combat missions and
captured hundreds of insurgents, according to the California National Guard.

Given the soldiers' harrowing experiences, their return marked a joyful occasion Monday.
Helium balloons danced in the midday breeze, printed with sayings
like "I love you" and "welcome home."

During the buildup and the lengthy wait outdoors, friends
and loved ones claimed a spot near the gate, laughing,
taking pictures and unfurling placards and banners.

One of those waiting was too young to understand the commotion,
too little to understand why the desert camouflage shorts
he wore looked so cute and so poignant.

"I bought these shorts soon after he was born, just for this day,"
said Serena Camarena, mother of 8-month-old Elias.

The baby's father, Spc. Kino Camarena, 26, last saw Elias while
on leave shortly after his son was born, when the infant weighed
just over 7 pounds. Now he is an armful at 18 pounds.

Nearby, in a crowd of about 500 people, Nick Mendoza held
a sign for his son, 30-year-old Lt. Christopher Mendoza.
The guardsman's two children - Calei, 7, and Christopher Jr., 5 -
milled about until the cheering erupted.

"I'm relieved. It's fantastic," said Nick Mendoza. "There are times
I'll be working and I'll break up.
When I hear about some of the other troops, it gets to me."

"I usually don't want to watch the news - it scares me,"
added his wife, Ida Mendoza.

Some of the soldiers injured in Iraq who had already returned to the United States
made sure they welcomed home those they had left behind.

(Javi holding daughter welcoming home best friend)

Javier, a Modesto resident, stood on a concrete bench at the airport.
Castillo returned to California in May after a roof fell on top of him during a mission in Iraq.
He was in Sacramento on Monday to welcome home his best friend,
Sgt. Richard Lee Delgaudio of Galt.

"Lee took my place as the actual sharpshooter," Castillo said.

Across the crowd of soldiers and family members, Castillo spotted Delgaudio,
who arrived on the 11 a.m. flight.
"What's up, brother?" Castillo shouted.

The 25-year-old Galt High School graduate hugged his mother,
Cindy Rupert, and his 16-year-old sister, Kara Delgaudio.
Then he turned to his friends, who gave him a candy lei.

(Lee Delgaudio & Mother)
Picture taken by Sacramento Bee

"It's crazy. It feels surreal. I didn't expect all this," said Delgaudio,
who planned to go home to Galt to relax.

About 30 minutes before the 2 p.m. charter touched down,
Phillip Parkinson passed time in the airport with his daughter and his mother,
Ruth Parkinson. His brother, Sgt. 1st Class Greg Parkinson of Citrus Heights,
would not be flying into Sacramento for another day because
he re-enlisted in the military full time and had been assigned to a new battalion.
But the Parkinsons wanted to show their support nonetheless.

"I'm proud of him, but there was a lot of concern," said Phillip Parkinson.
"I watched the news a lot, and every time you hear the casualty report,
you wonder if it's him. You go through it every day."

"These guys have gone to hell and back," said Ruth Parkinson when asked
why she was at the homecoming. "They suffered a lot of hits,
and they deserve a hero's welcome."

Two hours later in downtown Sacramento, about 50 anti-war marchers
called for the permanent return of the California National Guard from Iraq,
hoping to get the Legislature to vote on a nonbinding resolution.

But at the airport, there were no signs of protests or controversy,
and the guardsmen were greeted like heroes when the 2 p.m. flight
finally let out its passengers and the soldiers - all men, dressed
in their desert camouflage uniforms - hustled their way into the throng.
The cheering was steady and frantic, the kind usually reserved for rock stars.

Three aging men in Veterans of Foreign Wars jackets stood side by side,
waiting to shake one hand after the other.

And soon, Cpl. Brad Latham got the best welcome home he could imagine.
There, toward the back of the crowd was his wife, Kim, and 3-year-old son,
Cole, who had been so impossibly small the last time he saw the boy.

"We've been waiting for this for 18 months," said a smiling Latham,
a heavy equipment operator in civilian life.

Cole was wearing desert fatigues just like little Elias'.
And as the crowd dispersed and all the balloons and banners were whisked away,
and people paid for their parking and drove toward their homes
or favorite restaurants, those two boys were somewhere
out there, getting to know their fathers.

" The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson can be reached at (916) 321-1099 or"


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