After a year separated by war, the last few hours apart for families of Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 14th Engineer Battalion passed in a crowded gym packed with children and signs welcoming home Mom or Dad.
Bobbie Fitzpatrick, 22, craned her neck and hoisted the sign she made for the occasion: “I waited 267 days for this. Pucker up Sgt. Hallberg.”
She was sure she’d be easy to spot for fiancé Timothy.
“I told him to look for the tie-dye sign and the tall blonde,” she said.
Alysia Wanless, 21, cradled her 3-month-old son – the quietest baby at Friday’s homecoming.
“He’s been such a good boy the whole time,” she said.
Waukesha Cromartie huddled with her 10-year-old daughter, rocking as they waited and waited. They’ve been through this before. It was their family’s fourth deployment.
“This tour was really hard. I missed him,” she said about her husband, Sgt. Lazarus Cromartie.
The battalion left for southern Afghanistan a year ago with about 600 soldiers, patrolling dangerous roads in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. They searched for the enemy’s buried bombs and eliminated the explosives when they found them first. One soldier, Staff Sgt. Alexander Povilaitis, 47, gave his life to the mission. Several others suffered serious injuries.
Their commander, Lt. Col. John Buck, said his soldiers made the roads safer for American soldiers and Marines, British forces and Afghans, too.
“It was absolutely a phenomenal job. It’s good to have them home,” he said with bleary eyes and a grin as wide as the gym floor.
His soldiers disabled more than 600 improvised explosive devices. They garnered 72 Purple Hearts for combat-related wounds.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them,” he said. “The discipline these guys exhibited was remarkable.”
Their last moments before they could reunite with their families stalled in traffic on Interstate 5, delaying them between their landing at McChord Air Field and their ceremony on the Army side of the base.
Their family members kept waiting, some dressed up with makeup and short dresses for homecoming kisses, others fatigued by a long night of anticipation.
When the soldiers reached the gym, they took some extra moments to case their flag – a symbolic gesture showing their unit was home. Family members groaned when they heard they’d have to wait even a few more minutes for their reunion hugs.
Finally, the soldiers put away their flags and broke ranks. Their friends from the battalion who came home on earlier flights shouted the unit motto, “Rugged.” The newly home troops walked to their families in smiles and tears.
Sgt. Cromartie, 36, held his wife and daughters close. “It was hard, but I’m glad to be back,” he said.
Wanless and her husband, Spc. Scott Williamson, walked out of the gym on their way to make their new family together at their house on the McChord side of the base.
Hallberg, 25, hoisted his rucksack over one arm and held Fitzpatrick’s hand with the other. They’re getting married during his post-deployment leave.
Even with the tie-dye poster, it took him a minute to spot Fitzpatrick.
“I didn’t find her; she’s short,” he said, teasing her.
“I am not,” she insisted, smiling to have him firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8646