Local News

Guardsmen fly home to tears, hugs and flags

Posted June 10, 2008 6:45 p.m. EDT
Updated June 10, 2008 10:46 p.m. EDT

— A Rocky Mount-based National Guard unit enjoyed a homecoming on Tuesday after losing five soldiers in Iraq – the heaviest casualties of any North Carolina Guard company since World War II.

A crowd of 350 supporters carried flags and signs and cried and cheered as three C-130 Cargo Aircraft made a synchronized landing at the Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Airport around 4:40 p.m.

An American flag, state flag and the flag of the 1132nd Military Police Company emerged from the hatches – and then the approximately 120 members of the 1132nd.

In minutes, after a short formation, the soldiers were reunited with their families for the first time since leaving in July 2007 to train for deployment to Baghdad's Sadr City.

"Now mom can breathe a sigh of relief," Donna White, the mother of a Guardsman, said. "I can breathe now that he's back."

Although he sat in a wheelchair, Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Spence said it was sweet to welcome home his comrades, from whom his injuries had separated him in April.

"It's a lot of closure. That was my family," Spence said. "So my family's home, just like everybody else standing here."

Military officials said the company, which was joined by a platoon-sized contingent from New Hampshire in September, served with great distinction while suffering the most casualties by any North Carolina National Guard unit since WWII.

Four North Carolinians and one Guardsman from New Hampshire died, and more than 20 soldiers were also wounded.

Those soldiers who made it home counted what they had lost – and what they have to look forward to.

"My wife had her in December. I wasn't able to come home," said Sgt. Anthony Yelverton, while holding his baby girl. "This is the first time I actually held her. It feels great."

Spec. Eugene Doss said he made home just in time for "what (he) wanted most:" to see his girlfriend's high school graduation.

"I missed this little guy's fourth birthday, this little guy's second birthday and my five-year wedding anniversary," Sgt. Matthew Hall said. "We got a lot of making up and catching up to do."

The 1132nd's losses all came in a month-long period this spring.

Sgt. Thomas C. Ray, 40, of Weaverville, and Sgt. David Blake Williams, 26, of Tarboro, died on March 22 when their vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device.

Spc. David S. Stelmat, 27, of Littleton, N.H., was also killed in the attack.

Family members said Williams joined the National Guard because he felt called to serve after seeing the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd. He played on the baseball team while attending Tarboro High School.

Ray served in the Navy for three years in the 1980s before enlisting in the National Guard in May 2006. He left behind a wife and teenaged daughter.

Sgt. Emanuel Pickett, 34, of Teachey, died in roadside bomb attack in Baghdad on April 6. The father of three had worked as an officer for the Wallace Police Department for more than a dozen years.

Spc. Lance Oliver Eakes, 25, of Apex – who was posthumously promoted to sergeant – was killed by an improvised explosive device during a combat patrol on April 18.

Eakes decided to join the military after the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001, friends said. They described the Apex High graduate as an outgoing, big-hearted joker who loved his family and believed in his faith.

Ninety-seven service members from North Carolina have died in Iraq, the 10th-highest number among the states.

With six deaths, Fayetteville has experienced the most losses among Tar Heel cities. Greensboro has seen five; Charlotte, four; and Raleigh, Apex and Chapel Hill, one each.

Spence said he was "100 percent proud" of the work done by 1132nd.

"It's my second tour. If I had to go back, I'd go back for a third one," he said.