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Soldiers return to hugs, fears

As a wave of violence sweeps Iraq, a reservist says his thoughts are with friends still there.

Published April 9, 2004

[Times photos: Willie Allen Jr.]
Staff Sgt. Stanley Souvenir carries son Jordan, 2, in one hand and holds his older son, Tyler, with the other Thursday evening at the Reserve Center in St. Petersburg. When he isn't in uniform, Souvenir is a stock broker who lives in Tampa.

After the safe return of her uncle from Iraq, Lily Jarabuk prays with her mother, Christy Jarabuk during ceremonies Thursday evening for he 320th Military Police Company at the Reserve Center.
Community greets soldier
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ST. PETERSBURG - After the welcome home speeches were made Thursday afternoon and the men and women from the 320th Military Police Company were finally reunited with their families after serving in Iraq for the past 15 months, Sgt. Don Henry lingered toward the back, alone, and lit a cigarette.

Iraq had turned his face, neck and hands a deep red. He was glad to be a world away from the 120-degree heat and the sand and the rocket-propelled grenades. But he can't forget who he left behind.

"Things were really heating up as we left," Henry said. "The soldiers who are there now are having a really hard time. I've been in the Army Reserve 26 years, and I have a lot of friends who are still there.

"I'll be thinking about them a lot."

For the moment, though, those thoughts could wait. Time and again, soldiers came up to Henry, hugged him and shook his hand.

"This is a special group of people," he said.

The unit left St. Petersburg in February 2003 and returned to Fort Stewart, Ga., on March 31. While in Iraq, they provided escorts for military vehicles, hunted down and guarded insurgents and gave medical aid to civilians.

They were also shot at, bombed and ambushed.

But the 320th went to Iraq with 145 soldiers. And it returned home with the same 145.

At a few minutes after 5 p.m., a Florida Highway Patrol squad car pulled into the Army Reserve Center overlooking Tampa Bay. Behind it were three red and white charter buses. A crowd of several hundred family and friends, many holding American flags and homemade signs, broke into cheers as the buses pulled in.

After a short ceremony, the soldiers were released from duty. They kissed their wives and held children who seemed to have grown a foot taller.

Sgt. Henry would have to wait a little longer to see his family. He's 45, a corrections officer at the DeSoto Correctional Institution in Arcadia. He has two teen-aged sons, and is going through a divorce, something that began before he left.

"My wife couldn't make it, so a friend is picking me up," he said. "I can't wait to see my boys."

Despite the recent surge in hostilities in Iraq, Henry said he met dozens of Iraqi citizens who told him their lives are better since the regime change.

"We took a very evil man out of power," he said of Saddam Hussein. "The Iraqi people forgot how to think for themselves. Education was controlled. He crippled the country.

"Before the war, they had electricity, water and food. The war interrupted that, and the people started getting agitated and looking to blame somebody.

"Now they have cell phones, the markets have food . . ."

But it's not safe.

"You could be shot at at any time," he said. "It's dangerous everywhere you go, anything you do.

"It was a real test."

Within a few minutes, nearly all of the soldiers and their families had packed their duffel bags and gone home. At the front steps of the center, Sgt. Dave Massey was working his cell phone, giving directions to his wife. She was somewhere on the Howard Frankland Bridge. Twenty minutes away.

Massey, 37, grew up in Crystal River and works for a software company in Orlando.

"More than anything else," he said, "being in Iraq gave me a better appreciation of my family and friends and all the things I take for granted.

"Like water coming out of a faucet. Or walking around without wearing body armor.

"If we pulled out of there now, it would be like turning your back on a friend. If need be, we will pack up and go back there. I think we all feel that way.

"No one wants to be separated from their family. But if the mission is to return, we will."

His cell phone rang again.

"Stay on 275 South," he said. "You're almost here."

[Last modified April 9, 2004, 01:50:54]

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