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Marines return to Atlanta after Iraq deployment

233 WENT, 233 RETURNED: Marines back from Iraq into open arms

This is how it should be, when warriors come home.

Click on above link for photos.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/28/08

They should see 40 American flags, fluttering in the breeze. They should hear the cheers of hundreds of moms and dads and kid brothers, sweethearts and spouses and old school pals. They should hold babies, shake a buddy's hand, run a finger along a loved one's cheek.

And send up thanks for a safe return.

Friday morning, 233 warriors did.

Marines attached to Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 773 came home from war. The men and women came back to Georgia on a spring morning redolent of flowers and new life. They came back in an Omni Air International jet that had left Kuwait City about 13 hours earlier. The jet's arrival at Naval Air Station Atlanta in Marietta ended a seven-month deployment to western Iraq, where the squad flew thousands of sorties in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Every Marine deployed Sept. 4 came back alive.

The Marines are not expected to return to Iraq for at least a couple of years, said Col. Doug Hardison, commanding officer of the air group that includes the squadron.

"They all went forward and they all came back," he said. "That's the best news you can ask for."

The best news is knowing your sweetie's home, said Lindsey Longtin. A pert blonde with a pretty smile, she grasped a sign that leaves little room for interpretation:

Welcome home Tigger! Time to pounce

Tigger? That's what she calls her boyfriend, Staff Sgt. Ethan Held of Auburn.

Nearby, Chicago mom Janet Mason bounced on her toes and stared at the big jet. It held her son, 1st Lt. Matthew Mason, 28 — she was ready to hold him, too. She glanced at her husband, Matthew's dad, Monty Mason. They shared a thank-God smile.

"We've done a lot of praying," she said.

And then the doors to the airplane opened. A Marine, his face tanned from the desert sun, stepped out...

Prayers answered.

'I was lonely'

The Marine Corps announced in July that the squadron, called the "Red Dogs," would head to Iraq for several months to relieve other helicopter units. The squads' pilots would fly Cobras and Hueys to give aerial support to ground troops, and do reconnaissance work.

The work was hot, the work was cold, said Lance Cpl. Merico Fantigrossi, 21. Life in the desert caught him by surprise.

"You know, you say 'desert' and you think of camels and things like that," said Fantigrossi, a helicopter mechanic. "It wasn't like that. We had snow. Rain. Mud! Mud in the desert!

"It would be freakishly hot in the day," he continued." And then frigid at night."

The holidays were lonely, said Sgt. Emerson Greason. He's 25, his face just showing the ghosts of squint lines. He held hands with his girlfriend, Tanjuneka McIntosh.

"I was lonely," he admitted. He slid a sly grin in her direction. She beamed back.

"I was very lonely," she said.

Terrie Higley worried. She prayed. She kept faith. Friday morning, the Newnan resident smiled — faith answered, worries gone. Her 21-year-old son, Matt Higley, stood at her side.

When Matt joined the Marines after graduating from high school, "I was not happy," she said. "But he was 18, and wouldn't listen to me. All I could do was support him."

"He's a great kid," said Cartersville resident Hugh Higley, a Navy veteran whose cap announced his service on the carrier USS Forrestal decades ago. "Now that the lake [Allatoona] is full again, I'm going to take him fishing."

But that could wait. Friday morning was a time to go home, to sniff the air, to look at trees greening gently. To marvel at the miracle of love. They left the air station in large groups and small clusters. They walked hand-in-hand or with arms around each other.

One Marine, muscled and lean as a prizefighter, gently placed his sleeping daughter in a stroller. He looked over his shoulder at his wife. She wore a short dress that reminded him that he'd married a good-looking woman.

She reached out her hand, and he took it.

That is how it should be, when warriors come home.