02/05/10 — Families welcome Guard back from desert

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Families welcome Guard back from desert

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on February 5, 2010 1:46 PM

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Army National Guard Sgt. Joseph Conaway, left, hugs his wife, Annabelle, after returning from deployment in Iraq. More than 60 National Guard soldiers returned to Goldsboro Thursday.

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Sharyn Holland, left, and 9-year-old Aysia Holland, right, hug their returning loved one, Army National Guard Spc. Shakia Crawford. Spc. Crawford was among those who returned from a deployment in Iraq.

When two buses pulled up along the Elm Street side of the Goldsboro National Guard Armory late Thursday evening, Jacob and Hayden Lemons were among those who rushed through a small wooded area to greet them.

"Daddy!" the 6- and 9-year-old screamed one after the other, racing to embrace one of the members of the 230th Brigade Support Battalion who has been in Iraq for the past nine months.

Their father, Brandon, emerged soon after -- pulling his sons in for a long embrace and a few kisses on the head before Hayden jumped into his arms.

And in an instant, nearly a year of sacrifice and separation was over.

More than 60 of the 500 Goldsboro-based Guards-men who deployed early last year returned to a hero's welcome last night -- American flags waving, signs that read, "Welcome Home Troops" and "We Love You," posted across the grounds and being held high in the air.

But not all those who turned out for the homecoming saw a loved one step off one of those buses.

Hannah Laster still has another week of waiting before her husband, Randy, returns to the town where the couple fell in love.

But she showed up at the Armory to support those who have faced the same fears and tough days she has met since he left.

For Hannah, the hardest part of the past nine months had nothing to do with a fear he might never come home.

It was not having his smile to brighten up her down days, not having a kiss goodnight from the man she got used to having in the bed beside her.

"Afghanistan, I guess, is really the war zone. So I was a little bit calm with him going to Iraq. That was a little bit of a relief for me, but it was still very tough to see him leave," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "One day he is right there beside you and all of a sudden he's gone. And you're praying they'll come back, but you never know."

Sgt. James Bryant never had any doubt that his unit would make it back home.

He was part of the 230th's last deployment to Iraq, when, in 2004, it was attached to the Army's 1st Infantry Division and called on to provide support on many different levels, from medical assistance and fuel and ammunition supply to water purification and distribution.

"When you're over there, the most important thing is family -- getting back home," he said. "I knew they could do it. And my hat's off to these guys. They are extraordinary."

He showed up at the Armory Thursday to congratulate his comrades on a job well done -- and to drive those without rides to their homes scattered across the state.

"Tonight's about them," he said. "I know exactly how they feel."

And having seen his own daughter deploy to Iraq years ago, he knew how those waiting with him were feeling, too.

Sharon Mason had been at the Armory since before 7 p.m., expecting the bus carrying her son, Robert, to arrive within moments.

But seemingly every 30 minutes, a call would come in from one of the soldiers -- one who was "sure" they were only 30 minutes away -- when, in fact, they did not return until just before 10.

"These half hours are killing me," Sharon said. "They keep getting longer. I just want him here. I'm ready."

Hannah is ready, too.

"It's been an experience, a learning experience, for both of us," she said. "It's going to be nice to see him when he comes home. On my worst day, I can look at him and see his smile and all the bad goes away."