West Valley troops return after year in Iraq

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Brandon Luevano loves baseball. When he hit his first grand slam, his father cheered from the stands. But the 10-year-old has not picked up a bat in more than a year - he's waited for his father to return from Iraq.

Brandon's wait is over.

Buckeye resident Sgt. Robert Luevano and 149 fellow members of the Army National Guard's 259th Security Force Co. returned from a 14-month deployment Saturday. About 300 family members and friends packed a four-story hangar at the National Guard base in Phoenix to welcome the soldiers home.

Anxious spouses, parents, children, siblings and friends waited in the shadow of a billowing 20-foot tall American flag, many clutched homemade banners, some held tattered tissues.

"It's so overwhelming," said Kymber Anderson, as she waited with her children and parents for Staff Sgt. Shawn Anderson, who is also a captain with the Goodyear Fire Department.

Goodyear Battalion Chief Russ Braden, a longtime friend of the family, waited with them. Braden crossed his arms on his chest, brought one closed fist near his mouth and shook his head as his eyes glistened.

"I've been worried sick about him," he said, his voice shook and he swallowed hard. "The duty they had out there was dangerous. We're really glad to get him back."

They worried with good reason. The 259 provided security for civilian contractors hauling military supplies across some of Iraq's deadliest routes. The company traveled more than 500,000 miles on 360 missions; engaged the enemy more than 110 times; and earned 25 Bronze Stars, two Army Commendations, 108 Combat Action Badges and 35 Purple Hearts.

"These are not infantry people, these are security forces," said Maj. Gen. David Rataczak. "And they were working with contract people, not military people, so the degree of difficulty goes up considerably."

As the massive hangar doors rumbled open, cheers and clapping echoed from all the sides of the building.

Family and friends craned their necks and stood on tiptoes as they tried to spot their loved ones who walked in formation. They would have to wait almost 10 more minutes, through a prayer, moment of silence for a fallen soldier and a welcome home speech, before Rataczak would release the soldiers to their families.

Jessica Hernandez of Avondale raised 6-month-old Daisy over her head in the hopes Sgt. Joe Hernandez, who is also a Phoenix Police Officer, could see his daughter for the first time.

Earlier, Hernandez had juggled Daisy and kept an eye on 5-year-old Joe Jr.

"He hasn't even held her yet," she said. "I'm just glad it's ended."

"I'm picking up my daddy," Joe said, as her peered out from beneath a floppy desert camouflage hat. "He's been gone like a 1,000 days."

The soldiers from the 259 returned to the United States almost a week ago, yet were at Forth Bliss in Texas going through out-processing before they could return to Arizona.

Some could not stand the wait. Kim Vigil, a firefighter with the Harquahala Valley Fire District in Tonopah, packed her 15-month old daughter Madison in the car and drove to Texas to steal a few precious hours with her husband, Sgt. Michael Vigil.

"When he left, she was 10 days old," Vigil said, a service flag pendant with one blue star dangled from her neck. "I wanted her to be able to walk to him."

Changes at home
From new haircuts to more hash marks on growth charts, different jobs to new homes - the life of a soldier's family, while it seems to stand still, continues to march on.

Sgt. Max Flores left for his second tour in Iraq from a home in Avondale. He returns to new home in Tolleson - one he does not yet know about.

"We're going to surprise him," said Theresa Flores. "We put a big 'Welcome home' banner on the house."

Flanked by her brother Gabe, 13, 7-year-old Savana Flores perched on her mom's lap said she cannot wait to give her dad a hug.

"He's been gone too many days," she said.

Many families kept in touch via Web cams, e-mail and text messaging. While they spoke often, Flores said her husband's deployment was "very frustrating."

For those serving in what is the longest and largest mobilization of civilian soldiers since World War II, the long tours of duty have challenged families at home. Spouses are suddenly left in a single-parent household, often times with less money as men and woman leave their civilian jobs for a soldier's pay.

"It was a challenge," Vigil said.

She, like many, got help from friends, family and neighbors.

Kymber Anderson said the Goodyear Fire Department was a huge support while her husband was deployed.

"I actually don't think I would have made it without them, and my family," she said.

Hernandez leaned on Officer Jennifer Todd with the Phoenix Police Department.

"Anything and everything we've needed since he's been gone," Hernandez said. "She's my support. She's been great."

Combat injuries, a fallen comrade
More than 30 soldiers in the company endured injuries from enemy fire and IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Kevin Widmer of Tonopah still suffers effects from an IED blast six weeks ago.

"We don't know the extent of it yet," said his mother, Mary Widmer.

Widmer said he has back problems and a concussion affected his memory. But, Saturday he put that out of his mind for a moment: he'd made it home in time for his 29th birthday.

"I have a new Harley Softail waiting for me," he said. "Right now I want some home cooked food."

The 259 also lost one of its own. Staff Sgt. Darrel Kasson of Florence died in March when the convoy he traveled with hit an IED.

Tearful, joyous reunions
As families raced across the floor in search of their loved ones, Vigil yelled her husband's last name. Suddenly he appeared in front of her, without enough arms to hold his whole family at once, he reached for each of them and scooped up his 4-year-old twins Brayden and Brittny.

"This is probably the best moment of my life right now," he said.

Kymber Anderson and her sons rushed to her husband. He picked up Jacob, 3, with one arm and wrapped the other around Nathan, 9. Tears streamed down both father and son's faces as Nathan clutched his father's waist, his face crushed against desert camouflage.

Anderson's 18-year-old daughter Leah handed him a tiny bundle wrapped in pink cotton - his first grandchild, three-week-old Madison Rae.

"It's been tough without him," Leah said.

The wait is over
Brandon Luevano waited for his father with his mother, Robin, sister, Morgan, 13, brother Tyler Whitchurch, 17, and his grandmother Elaine Whitchurch of Tonopah.

"He's struggled with it the most," Robin Luevano, an eighth-grade teacher at Freedom Elementary School in Buckeye, said of Brandon. "He's really close to his dad."

Luevano, who works for the Goodyear Parks and Recreation Department, asked his wife to respect Brandon's decision not to play baseball.

As he waited, Brandon slipped from one foot to the other; his eyes darted to the hangar doors. With a slight smile, he softly said, "I'll play now."

Rebecca I. Allen can be reached by e-mail at rallen@westvalleyview.com.

Rebecca I. Allen
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