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Loving embrace welcomes Marines

Hundreds of friends and family members swarm over reservists as they return from Iraq.

By RON MATUS
Published June 22, 2003

photo
[Times photos: Kathleen Flynn]
Desiree Lavas kisses her boyfriend, Marine reservist David Evans, shortly after he arrived Saturday at headquarters of the 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion in Tampa.
Kelly Gitchel, left, and Kari Thompson cheer as buses holding the reservists arrive.
Tampa Bay's 10 News video: (56k | High-Speed)

TAMPA - After four months of war in a faraway desert, all Cpl. Anthony Phyles wants is his wife and a Big Mac.

Phyles, an air conditioning repairman from Port Charlotte, was one of about 200 Marine Corps reservists who returned home Saturday after serving in Iraq.

After the Marines landed at Tampa International Airport, a police escort led them in three buses to the headquarters of the 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion, near the Gandy Bridge. More than 500 flag-waving friends and family members greeted them with cheers. A pesky rain let up just long enough for the hugs to be dry.

"Weird," said a smiling Phyles, 23, when asked how it felt to be home.

"We have to readjust," he continued, a beaming, crying Mary Phyles at his side. "Just give me two days and a lot of McDonald's."

Marine Corps officials cordoned off a grassy area with white ribbon, and told family members to wait until all the reservists disembarked. But as they awkwardly scanned the crowd, and family members shouted names, a trickle of bodies, then a flood, ran to meet them.

"I'm glad today is here. I didn't think it would ever come," said Sylvia Parker of Tampa, who greeted both her husband, James Parker, and son, George Hernandez.

"I told George when he was a baby, "You're going to be something big,"' said his grandmother, Olga Rodriguez of Chicago. "I'm real proud for him."

Sixteen battalion members remain overseas, loading equipment onto ships, said battalion spokesman Gunnery Sgt. Lonnie Phillips. They could return as soon as mid July.

In the meantime, the rest will return to civilian work. And maybe, a normal life.

The reservists left Tampa on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. They trained at Camp Pendleton in California for a few weeks, then headed to the Persian Gulf. During the war, they ferried Marine infantry across land and water.

Many dodged bullets. Seven were wounded. One died.

Lance Cpl. Andrew Aviles, a standout senior at Robinson High School last year, was killed April 7 on the outskirts of Baghdad. Burial services were held for him Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Aviles' death put the other reservists' families even more on edge.

A few days after she learned of the loss, Lesley Nolan, the mother of Cpl. Peter Nolan, heard a car door slam in the darkness outside her St. Petersburg home. She and her husband jumped, expecting to see Marines in crisp uniforms bearing bad news.

"It's an awful feeling," Nolan said.

Instead of Marines, Peter Nolan's girlfriend walked to the door.

Many families went weeks at a time without hearing from their loved ones.

Kari and Clinton Thompson of St. Petersburg were married Jan. 24, four days after Clinton was called for duty. For the first two months he was overseas, there were no phone calls, no e-mails, no letters.

The TV stayed on constantly, tuned to the news. Kari Thompson slept on the couch in front of it. "I talked to Clint in my head. I really did," she said.

The reservists left Iraq and returned to Camp Pendleton on June 13.

Clinton Thompson, who is training to become a state wildlife officer, called as soon as he landed. He told his wife how good it was to smell fresh-cut grass again.

"He said, "Man, it smells so good here,"' she said. "Can you imagine? All those camels? ... All those Marines sweating and stinking."

He headed straight to Taco Bell.

"He was craving soft tacos," Kari Thompson said.

So far, Clinton Thompson hasn't talked much about what happened in Iraq. He told his mother he'll tell them about it later.

Anthony Phyles hasn't been as tight-lipped. A news reporter let Phyles call his wife on a satellite phone twice a month, for four minutes at a time.

He told her about children dead in the road. He told her about killing people.

"He said he didn't like doing it, but he knew he had to," she said. She said her uncle, a New York firefighter, was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. "He said he did it for me."

He told her he didn't want to do it again. "He said, "One war is enough."'

After a long hug, Mary Phyles rubbed her hand on her husband's cheek, then patted him on the rump. Anthony Phyles took the wedding band that hung on a necklace around his wife's neck and returned it to his finger.

As the rain picked up again, they headed for the golden arches.

- Ron Matus can be reached at 813 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 22, 2003, 01:33:03]


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