A major’s homecoming

Published 9:11 pm Thursday, June 7, 2012

Major Richard Downs greets his family for the first time since Christmas after returning directly from a Middle East deployment to a Bennett’s Creek Little game. “I snuck up on them,” Downs said. “They didn’t know what time I was coming home; Mom picked me up from the airport.”

It could have been a scene from a movie starring Tom Hanks or Kevin Costner, but it happened on a ball field behind Driver Elementary School about 7:25 p.m. Wednesday.

A man in military fatigues walked at a brisk clip down a gravel road between the diamonds, parting the sea of Bennett’s Creek Little League children and parents.

Army Maj. Richard Downs has been on a one-year deployment to Pakistan. Arriving home via Turkey, Germany, Dallas and Georgia after boarding the first plane at 8 p.m. Monday, his mother collected him at the airport, and they drove directly to Driver Sports Complex.

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On one of the fields down the back, the soldier’s son, Dominick, 11, awaited his turn to pitch while sitting in the bleachers next to Mom Ann and 6-year-old sister Samantha.

They spied Dad, whose mile-wide smile had already started attracting attention, and they leapt up. The hugs and tears started, while the baseball game barely paused to draw breath.

Ann Downs said they had debated whether Dominick should miss the game and meet his dad at the airport or honor his Little League commitment and see him later. Then her husband said, “’Let him go to the game; I’ll meet him there.’”

It was Richard Downs’ third overseas deployment in the past five years. He was last home on leave for two weeks at Christmas.

“It’s been tough, but we made it through,” Ann Downs said Wednesday.

“I told my daughter that he was arriving in the U.S. this morning. She just looked at me and her eyes welled up with tears and (she) said, ‘Mommy, Daddy is safe. He can’t die anymore.’

“It was just overwhelming for me to hear that, because I thought that it didn’t bother her. It just made me realize how strong she has been, for her to do as well as she has been doing at school. She just grabbed me and we were crying.”

Dominick, a promising pitcher training under former Major League pitcher Jimmy Anderson, hugged his dad only briefly before heading out on to the field to be with his teammates.

“Come on Dominick!” his father encouraged from behind the chain-link fence. “Come on, get it through Dominick; don’t let him run!”

Samantha, hinting that she might have had some inkling of what was going on, had insisted on wearing her favorite yellow dress.

Asked how she felt as she clung to her father, a teary “Good” was all she could muster.

Within a month or two, the family is moving to Alabama, Ann Downs said. They have been in Suffolk for eight years. “We’re really part of the community,” she added.

Exactly when they leave depends on whether Dominick makes the All-Stars. If he does, Ann Downs says, they’ll hang around a bit longer.

“We’re planning our life around baseball, but I think he deserves it,” she said.