Welcome home, Da-da

A National Guard unit based in Pinellas Park returns from Afghanistan to hugs, kisses and promises of more to come.

Published July 10, 2006

PINELLAS PARK - Sitting away from her family and out of the sun, Jessica Neveitt, 20, waited for the bus bringing her father home from Afghanistan.

She was nervous. She hadn't seen him since a visit in November.

"It's going to be weird having him home again," she said. "You kind of forget what he sounds like until he calls."

Then his bus pulled up in front of the C.W. Bill Young Armed Forces Reserve Center.

"My heart just did a little flip-flop," she said.

Her father, National Guard Sgt. Michael Neveitt, 50, had been deployed for a year with more than 1,200 others in the Florida Army National Guard 53rd Infantry Brigade, based in Pinellas Park.

The brigade lost one member, Staff Sgt. Joseph Frederick Fuerst III who died June 24 when his Humvee was attacked.

The soldiers came home Sunday to family and friends.

Jessica backed off to let her parents embrace before giving her dad a quick, awkward hug.

"I think I got the biggest group," Michael Neveitt said surrounded by his father, nephews, brother and in-laws.

A big group was also waiting for Chief Warrant Officer Donald Wheeler. Yellow ribbons were tied around the ears of Sparky, the Shih Tzu mix.

"He told me that was what he was going to do, he was going to push me away and go right for the dog," Wheeler's wife, Karen, said jokingly. "And that's exactly what he did."

A big welcome home party is planned for next weekend, Karen Wheeler said.

"Then we're going on vacation, just the two of us," she said.

Donald Wheeler, 46, said he was going to celebrate his homecoming with the "official burning of the Afghani underwear."

He also looked forward to the swimming pool, Michelob Light and WingHouse.

"Not necessarily in that order," he said.

The beer was in the car.

Between hurricanes and the Army, Donald Wheeler had been away for 2½ years. He was home for good now.

"We are officially over," he said. "No more, 'Hey, you. Be here.'"

But now that he was back home, he had to take orders from another boss. Donald Wheeler ripped his rank insignia off his uniform and put it up to his wife.

For Staff Sgt. Michael Richardson, 48, everything came "full circle" on Sunday.

"Last Fourth of July we were standing here saying goodbye," he said.

And the last time he saw his daughter, Tianni, she fit in his hands.

Sunday, Tianni, now 13 months, had grown into a handful.

She was walking on wobbly legs and had learned to say, "Da-da" although she wasn't speaking up at the moment.

"She's just shy right now," said Richardson.

Richardson squatted and reached out to his baby girl.

"Come here, precious," he cooed. "Come to Da-da."

Still holding on to her grandmother, Tianni took a cautious step toward him.

She hesitated, hiding her face in her grandmother's leg before letting "Da-da" pick her up.



Visit links.tampabay.com to see and hear more of the National Guard 53rd Infantry Brigade's homecoming.