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Coming home

National Guard unit returns

By Henry Luzzatto

Correspondent

 

There was tension in the air outside of the National Guard Armory. Clouds gathered in the sky as dozens of families waited for their spouses, children, parents and friends to return home after nine months of military service in Qatar.

The Suffolk-based Troop B, 2nd Squadron, 183rd Cavalry, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Virginia National Guard returned home Tuesday evening after serving in federal active duty since September of last year.

Many family members and friends of the soldiers said the deployment was stressful, and they were relieved to have their loved ones back home safe and sound.

Sgt. Travis Brooks of Powhatan kisses wife Britney as daughter Alexis clings to his neck in front of the National Guard Armory in Suffolk on Tuesday evening. Brooks is part of the Suffolk-based Troop B, 2nd Squadron, 183rd Cavalry, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Virginia National Guard, which was called up for active duty in September and has spent the time since October doing security operations in Qatar.

Sgt. Travis Brooks of Powhatan kisses wife Britney as daughter Alexis clings to his neck in front of the National Guard Armory in Suffolk on Tuesday evening. Brooks is part of the Suffolk-based Troop B, 2nd Squadron, 183rd Cavalry, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Virginia National Guard, which was called up for active duty in September and has spent the time since October doing security operations in Qatar.

“I didn’t sleep last night, because I was thinking about him,” said Shayla Blackwell, whose husband, Sergeant David Blackwell was returning from deployment.

“I haven’t slept for nine months,” Kimberly Lotrell jokingly replied. She was waiting for her boyfriend, Specialist Jordan Ashley. “It’s so amazing,” she added. “I’m ecstatic.”

Many of the soldiers’ families have experienced big changes since their departure. Blackwell’s son was born just weeks before Troop B shipped out for training at Fort Pickett, near Blackstone and Fort Bliss in Texas.

“David hasn’t had a chance to be around him,” Shayla Blackwell said. “He was a baby then; now he’s almost a toddler.”

Troop B was part of Task Force Normandy, a group of more than 450 soldiers that provided security for installations in the U.S. Army’s Central Command in Qatar. The soldiers searched individuals and vehicles, and headquarters officials praised the battalion for improving the security plans, according to a press release from the Virginia National Guard.

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No soldiers were injured on deployment.

Lt. Rob McKenna, the troop’s commanding officer, said he was happy the soldiers made it home without any issues.

“We were truly fortunate that everyone made it back safe and sound,” he said, “especially since most of us were first-timers.”

The battalion was relieved of its security duty on July 11. After arriving at the airport in Norfolk, the troop took charter buses back to Suffolk. McKenna said the feeling on the bus ride home was one of “quiet elation.”

A guardsman has a ride-along friend on his pack as he prepares to hug a fellow soldier before heading home.

A guardsman has a ride-along friend on his pack as he prepares to hug a fellow soldier before heading home.

“It was like static electricity,” he said. That feeling became real as lightning from an approaching thunderstorm crackled in the skies above the armory as soldiers were loading their cars to go home.

The soldiers’ fellow guardsmen waited inside the armory, making popcorn and snow cones for the waiting family members. A banner hung on the wall, reading “Welcome Home B Troop.”

The troop was given only 90 days notice of its deployment date. Units normally receive at least six months’ notice.

“It was very stressful,” said Symione McDowell, whose husband, Sgt. Rashod McDowell, was returning. “We got married right before he left. The marriage was in May, and they left for training in June.”

Tears flowed and smiles abounded as families reunited and friends prepared to say goodbye.

Tears flowed and smiles abounded as families reunited and friends prepared to say goodbye.

Despite the stress that came with the short notice, many of the families stayed in good spirits about the deployment.

“We just had to value the time we had left with him,” Lotrell said.

As the night went on, the families gathered outside, waiting to see their loved ones return. The initial estimate for the return was around 6 p.m., but as it grew closer to 7, and the excitement in the air grew palpable as families knew their soldiers could arrive at any minute.

The families cheered and waved their homemade signs as the two charter buses carrying the troop pulled up to the armory.

The soldiers got off the bus, smiling as they heard their names being shouted by those waiting for them. They gathered on the lawn in front of the armory, standing in formation.

A sergeant addressed the troop with a quick message, telling them to be careful and to relax during their time off.

“Whatever you’re going to do, do it in moderation,” he said.

Once they were dismissed, the soldiers united with their friends and families for the first time in nine months.

People cried and hugged. Mothers and fathers greeted their children. Cellphones were held aloft as absent family saw their returning soldiers over video chat.

James Lashley greeted his wife and three children, holding his daughter, Alanah on his shoulder.

“It’s a blessing to be back,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for so long to be with my family.”

Sgt. David Blackwell hugged his crying wife. Though this was his second deployment, he said it was completely different from his first time.

“I was single when I was in Iraq,” he said. “Now I’m married and I have a son, and I want nothing more than to spend time with them.”

Blackwell picked up his son for the first time.

“I’m looking forward to being a dad,” he said. “I’ve never been able to before, but now I’ll be here for him.”

After nine months in Qatar, many of the soldiers planned vacations and get-togethers with friends and family. But, most of all, after nearly a year of strict regiments and discipline, they were ready for some down time.

“I’m looking forward to relaxing,” Blackwell said. “I’m so glad we finally get to rest.”