Families welcome soldiers of Company A back to Wisconsin
Company A of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team returned from Iraq to Wisconsin on Monday. Family and friends greeted them at Camp Douglas.
WCLO's Stan Stricker reports on homecoming parade plans to welcome National Guard soldiers back to Janesville
Soliders return to Wisconsin
Hundreds of family members from the Janesville area reconnecting with their loved ones at Volk Field in Madison Monday morning. A news release from the Wisconsin National Guard states the soldiers have been in Iraq the past eight months and are part of the 132nd Brigade Support Battalion of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. The soldiers will spend time with their families. Then they'll be bused to Fort McCoy for five days of demobilization before returning to Janesville. Click to play
CAMP DOUGLAS Sgt. Jamie Evans held his two children, one in each arm, for a long, long time Monday.
The Janesville man had just walked off the plane into the crisp predawn air at Volk Field with about 200 other Wisconsin Army National Guard members.
The soldiers were on the last leg of a trip that started nearly a year ago and included eight months in Iraq. Evans’ overwhelming emotion was relief.
“It’s sort of like you’re pushing that rock up the hill, and it just rolls down the other side, again and again. And you finally get it up there—that’s how it feels, only better,” he said.
“Iraq was my rock, and I pushed it up the hill.”
Evans is one of about 130 members of Company A of the 132nd Brigade Support Battalion. The company is based in Janesville and Elkhorn.
The local unit is part of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. About 3,200 members of the 32nd Brigade have served in Iraq for the past eight months, the biggest operational deployment of Wisconsin Guard troops since World War II.
The plane landed shortly after 7 a.m., just as dawn turned the sky silver. The crowd chanted, “Welcome home! Welcome home!”
Some whooped. Others chanted “USA! USA!”
Toddlers fussed in the cold. Babies were hidden in layers of fleece blankets.
After a short wait, the soldiers filed off the plane and walked the 100 yards to the tarmac where their families huddled in a long line against a rope barrier. The months-long wait was made a few seconds longer as the soldiers were directed away from the rope and toward an exit.
“Hurry up and meet your loved ones. They’ve been waiting a long time,” said one guardsman who directed security efforts.
He turned to the waiting families. “As soon as they cross that rope, they’re yours.”
From the chilly tarmac, the families and their soldiers piled into a heated, temporary shelter. The Guard gave families more than the previously announced hour to get reacquainted before the soldiers were bused off to Fort McCoy for several days of processing.
Here are some moments from the families’ reunions:
Sgt. Jamie Evans, Janesville
Cashya Evans was barely a year old when her daddy left, but it was clear she knew him Monday.
That’s because she and her brother Keaton, 6, often saw their daddy online.
“She’s been missing him a lot,” said Cashya’s mother, Colleen.
Cashya presented her dad with a present: an oversized pen that flashed the message: “No. 1 Dad.”
Jamie brought gifts, too: plush toys for the kids and one for his wife.
Colleen got a sheep that held a heart-shaped pillow with the words “I love you.”
“Dad, I got a tooth growing in,” Keaton said.
Jamie bent over to peer into his son’s mouth. “Let me see—good job!”
“You glad I’m home now?” Jamie asked.
Spc. James Morrow, UW-Whitewater
Among the crowd, Katy Vandervries and James Morrow could have been standing in a snow globe.
Around them, uncles and aunts pulled gifts of coloring books and novels out of camouflage backpacks. Moms and dads blew raspberries on little cheeks and tossed toddlers into the air.
Little ones who’d been fussing on the tarmac shrieked and giggled.
From time to time, the soldier-dads and -uncles and -moms and -aunts paused. While the babies kept giggling, the soldiers closed their eyes, pushed their noses up against little cheeks and just breathed.
Morrow and Vandervries were oblivious to it all, with eyes only for each other. When briefly interrupted by a reporter, Morrow gave Vandervries a peck on the fingers before answering each question.
“I’m just glad to be home,” he said.
The couple are seniors at UW-Whitewater. Vandervries is studying Spanish and learning to teach English as a second language, she said.
A semester of studying in Spain helped the time go quickly while Morrow was away.
“That made it a lot easier,” Vandervries said.
Spc. Christopher Schenk, Janesville
Christopher Schenk brought a stack of chocolate bars from Germany for his mom, Sheryl Ostram.
But it sat uneaten on a table while Schenk’s family happily soaked up his presence.
Temperatures were in the 40’s and 50’s when the plane left Iraq—shirtsleeve weather, Schenk said.
After a stop in Germany, the soldiers flew 10 hours straight to Camp Douglas, he said.
Schenk, 21, looks forward to properly celebrating his birthday now that he’s home.
“I just want to see the rest of the family and drink some beer,” Schenk said. “I barely got to celebrate my 21st.”
Sgt. Tammy Splittstoesser, Evansville
Tammy Splittstoesser hates to admit her dad was right.
Monday morning, Splittstoesser was enjoying the feel of cold Wisconsin air. She also was enjoying a homemade tart topped with cream cheese and fresh fruit.
“When I was a kid, I told my dad summer was my favorite time of year,” Splittstoesser said. “He said when I got older, I would learn to appreciate winter. After two tours in the desert, I hate to admit he’s right.”
Staff Sgt. Shannon Zilliox, Janesville
Shannon Zilliox held her 5-year-old son Grant. He occasionally pulled her close to whisper something into her ear.
“I missed him so much. It’s probably the hardest thing—to be away from my family,” the Janesville soldier-mom said.
Grant had come with his dad, Terry, who had kept the home fires burning for the past year.
“He keeps hugging me and won’t let me go,” Shannon said of Grant. “So I think that’s a good sign.”
Spc. James Graf, Beloit
Jimmy Graf’s niece, Leah, was one of the bundles of pink blankets in the crowd. He was meeting the 2-month-old for the first time Monday morning.
Graf and his wife, Rashelle, were married before he left for Iraq. She could barely contain herself watching for the plane to land.
“It’s crazy,” Rashelle Graf said. “When we got here this morning, I thought I was going to be late. I was shaking, and I thought I was going to jump out of my skin.”
The couple have a wedding reception planned in February and will honeymoon in the Dominican Republic.
Sgt. Kyle Stade, Janesville
Sharyl Pingel of Janesville, the mother of Sgt. Kyle Stade, said Monday was almost two years to the day since Kyle had heard he was going to Iraq. It was a long, tense time for Sharyl, especially the last eight months, when Stade was serving in a war zone.
“We’re glad it’s over,” his mother said.
Mother embraced son as they found each other in the crowd on Volk Field’s tarmac.
The relief of a worried mother was in her eyes, but she found few words to back them up. “You look good, honey. You look good,” was all she could say.
Step-dad Russ Pingel looked ready to cry as he hugged Kyle.
Kyle was all smiles.
The Pingels, like many families, had kept in touch via Internet-based software that allows live voice and video conversations.
“It helped me a lot. I got to see him at least once a week,” Sharyl said.
Russ said there’s a big, illuminated sign up at the Pingel residence, saying: “Welcome home, Sgt. Stade.”
“It’ll be lit up for the whole week,” Sharyl said.
Pfc. Ryan Lonergan, Elkhorn
Jessica Lonergan of Elkhorn was having a fit as she waited the last agonizing minutes as her husband, Ryan, passed the rope line, where family members were finally allowed to touch their loved ones.
“She was jumping up and down like a kid in a candy store,” said Ryan’s mother, Colleen.
When she got close enough, Jessica jumped into his arms.
“She tackled me like A.J. Hawk,” Ryan said, grinning as he compared his wife to the Green Bay Packers linebacker.
Ten minutes later, Jessica still was glowing with happiness, a smile on her face a mile long that would not go away.
“I’m very happy,” she said.
Ryan said the worst part of the deployment was missing his family.
“I think what I missed most was Christmas,” his mother said.
“Christmas was really hard,” said Ryan’s sister-in-law, Thesha Simons of Clinton, who brought along her children—Jordan, Savannah and Gabriella—to welcome their uncle.
“Christmas sucked,” Ryan agreed.
Ryan asked his mother to make a dish he missed while in Iraq: green bean, Tater Tot casserole.
“With a big glass of milk,” Lonergan said. “Real milk.”
What they had in Iraq was not Wisconsin milk, Lonergan said.
“It’s in a box,” he said. “It can’t be good for you.”
Colleen Lonergan said she was proud to be an American.
“I’m just glad that they’re home. They’re all home,” she said.
Spc. Ashley Mullis, Whitewater
Kathie Fleming of Whitewater, mother of Spc. Ashley Mullis, said her daughter also asked for a home-cooked meal.
“‘Cook for me,’ she said. ‘I don’t care what you cook. Just cook something.’”
Mullis also missed Starbucks and fresh milk.
Like many Company A members, Mullis had flown home for a quick break last fall and was able to be there for a Whitewater High School’s homecoming.
Spc. Kenneth Gambill, Beloit
Kenneth Gambill wrapped his arms around his wife, Elinor, from behind. He held her tightly as they listened to officers give speeches, and she pulled his forearms close around her, just as tightly. They stayed that way for many minutes.
The Beloit couple rocked gently from foot to foot, joy radiating from their faces.
“It just feels good to be in the arms of my wife,” he said.
“And the show of support from everybody is just outstanding.”
Spc. Charles Evans, Beloit
Charles Evans was not in Iraq. His son Jamie was. But Charles understood why it was important to welcome soldiers home, perhaps more than most people at the homecoming.
“I did eight years of service—nine months in Vietnam—and I know what it’s like to be away from home,” said Charles, of Beloit.
Charles sat quietly, watching his son get reacquainted with his family.
“I was a specialist when I got out, an E-4,” Charles said, referring to his military pay grade. “And he’s a sergeant—an E-5. He made me proud.”
Capt. Chad Simandl
Alpha Company’s commander gave a short speech to the troops.
“It’s even good to see snow again,” he said, and some in the crowd chuckled in agreement.
Simandl said he ran into a veteran warrant officer on his way home. The man asked if it was a successful deployment and if everyone in the unit was coming home safe.
Everyone, Simandl said.
“He said, ‘Well then, there you go. That’s a successful mission.’”
Local troops performed a variety of missions
The 130 members of Company A of the 132nd Brigade Support Battalion helped with the closure of the largest prison camp in Iraq during their eight-month deployment.
Company A, also referred to as Alpha Company, is an Army National Guard unit based in Janesville with a detachment in Elkhorn.
While at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, Alpha Company’s members also coordinated truck convoys passing in and out of the country.
In addition, soldiers improved conditions for local residents with a number of projects, including work on a school and the construction of a water tower.
Pfc. Ryan Lonergan of Elkhorn said the welding skills he learned at Gateway Technical College were put to good use on a number of projects, including the water tower.
Alpha Company represented a small portion of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team’s 3,200 boots on the ground in Iraq over the past eight months.
The 32nd was tasked with a variety of missions throughout Iraq, according to a Guard news release. The missions included administration, base defense, area security, quick-reaction forces, freedom of movement security support, detainee guard operations, transferring detainees, training Iraqi corrections officers, inspecting detention facilities, securing and administering the International Zone in Baghdad and turning over U.S.-controlled properties to the government of Iraq.
“The brigade's soldiers operated around the clock, most of them working at least 12 hours a day—day after day, week after week, for eight full months in Iraq,” according to the news release.
Soldiers at Camp Bucca endured temperatures higher than 140 degrees Fahrenheit during Iraq’s summer.
Guthrie said the brigade suffered no combat fatalities during the deployment, and while some soldiers were injured, she was not aware of any severe combat injuries.
The entire brigade has been returning to Wisconsin in stages this month. Nearly all the 32nd’s soldiers are now back in Wisconsin.
One additional flight is scheduled for about 20 soldiers from the 32nd Infantry Brigade Headquarters and other units, who have spent the final days of their tour coordinating all the flights for returning soldiers, said the Guard’s Lt. Col. Jackie Guthrie.
Soldiers arriving at Camp Douglas’ Volk Field had a short time for a welcome-home ceremony and to be with loved ones after they landed. Then, they were bused to Fort McCoy for several days of “demobilization processing” before being released.
Parade planned in Janesville
A local group is organizing a welcome-home parade for members of Alpha Company when they arrive in Janesville, perhaps this weekend.
The time and date of the parade will be announced as soon as information becomes available.
The unit is now at Fort McCoy, where members will go through processing for several days before traveling by bus to the National Guard Armory in Janesville.
Plans are for Janesville police and fire units to meet the buses on Milton Avenue near Interstate 90/39 and escort them down Milton Avenue to Milwaukee Street, turning left on Main Street before arriving at the armory.
Some people are assembling at the Big Lots parking lot, 1714 Milton Ave. Some signs made by local students might be available.
Residents are asked to stay away from the armory in order to give privacy to the soldiers and their families.
A formal welcome-home ceremony is being planned for Janesville in April. The unit’s commander requested the delay to give his soldiers time to adjust.