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MARINE CORPS AIR STATION FUTENMA, Okinawa — Though the 1st Stinger Battery didn’t return from its seven-month deployment in Iraq until a little after 1 a.m. Tuesday, anxious family members began gathering at the battery’s barracks on Marine Corps Air Station Futenma as early as 8 p.m. Monday.

By 9 p.m., more than 100 spouses and children loitered in the barracks parking lot. While they waited, some shared their stories.

Greatest birthday present everMonday was 34-year-old Theresa Shetler’s birthday, and though her husband, 1st Sgt. Michael Shetler, arrived a little late, she said his safe return from Iraq was the best birthday present she’s ever received.

After this, he doesn’t even need to buy anything, she said. She had balloons with her and a birthday cake was waiting at home.

“But the balloons are for Daddy,” her daughter, Madeline, 5, pointed out.

The homecoming was much anticipated as the Shetlers haven’t been with their Marine for a while. The first sergeant was on an unaccompanied tour, but that changed to accompanied. Teresa and Madeline were able to move to Okinawa on Aug. 16, just in time to get ready for Shetler’s return.

“Eighteen months was way too long to be apart,” Theresa said.

She said they handled the separation by “just knowing that the light at the end of the tunnel was being together again.”

Long but eventful wait“It was an interesting deployment,” said Phaedra Harrison, the wife of Sgt. Ben Harrison.

While Harrison was gone, their 10-year-old daughter, Emily, broke her arm in an accident that involved Heelys — shoes with wheels in the back sole. Emily’s broken arm required surgery, a metal pin that was eventually removed and a cast for three months.

Throughout the experience, other families were wonderful, Phaedra said.

“Within two hours, everyone was calling with support,” she said.

When her husband’s officers in Iraq learned of the accident, they arranged for him to talk with Emily’s doctors while she was in surgery, Phaedra said.

Though he was in Iraq, “he knew what was going on before I did,” she said.

Lots of surprisesJennifer Armknecht, 23, brought a special gift for her husband, Sgt. Dillion Armknecht — their 3-month-old daughter, Cayleen.

“He’s very excited to meet her,” Jennifer said as she cradled the wide-eyed infant in her arms Monday night. By the time Dillion Armknecht arrived, Cayleen had settled down for a quick nap.

Cayleen’s 20-month-old brother was at home sleeping and would get to see his dad when he woke up Tuesday, Jennifer said.

Caring for a newborn and a toddler by herself seemed impossible at times, she said.

“I don’t know how I did it. I just did it,” she said.

She said she had a lot of help from her church and a six-week visit from her father when Cayleen was born.

It also helped that Cayleen “is really good. She slept a lot; she made it easy,” Jennifer said.

“But Dad is in for a surprise” when he sees their son, she said.

“When Dillion left, he was barely able to walk and talk, and now he’s everywhere.”

Mom’s on vacationAnother father in for a surprise was Sgt. Eric Stewart.

His wife, Sgt. Kayel Stewart, with Marine Wing Control Squadron 18, joked that, “I (am) going to hand off the kids, (and) I’m going on vacation.”

Though this was the family’s first deployment with the battery, Kayel said they have become old hands at deployments. During this one, she explained to her two daughters, 4 and 2, that “Daddy’s at work keeping us safe.”

She also showed the girls a map of Iraq and told them that was where their father’s work was.

Kayel said the girls’ Daddy dolls — dolls made with a picture of their father on them — were helpful during the deployment.

“The Daddy dolls went everywhere,” she said. “Everywhere we go, Daddy goes. Daddy took baths, Daddy brushed his teeth, Daddy went to school.”

At times, the dolls “were my life-saver,” she said.

Of waiting until 1 a.m. to see the real daddy, Kayel said she was very glad she took leave, otherwise she would have to get up at 4 a.m. to get to work.

About 150 end 7-month deployment

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION FUTENMA, Okinawa — About 150 Marines with 1st Stinger Battery, III Marine Expeditionary Force returned to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma early Tuesday morning following a seven-month deployment to Iraq.

The unit is scheduled to deactivate at the end of the month, said Capt. Dean Myers, the battery operations officer.

The battery deployed Feb. 9 to Anbar province, where it relieved the Reading, Pa.-based I Battery, 3rd Battalion, 14th Marines, a Reserve unit.

The Okinawa battery provided security at Al Asad Air Base, Myers said.

“They did a phenomenal job,” he said. “Give them a task, and they dove into it.”

The Marines conducted mounted combat patrols and familiarized themselves with the region’s terrain and people. They also manned perimeter surveillance towers and searched vehicles and personnel at entry-control points at the air base.

But Myers said the deployment highlight was the return home.

Cpl. Nicholas Zepeda, 22, worked as a low-altitude air-defense gunner during the deployment. He said the tour’s greatest challenge may have been the temperature.

“It was hot, really hot in Iraq.” Other than that, the deployment went well, Zepeda said.

“Nothing bad happened,” he added, making it “a great deployment.”

Though families and friends began gathering at the battery’s barracks on Futenma about 9 p.m. Monday, the Marines didn’t get home until a little after 1 a.m. Tuesday, and most were exhausted.

Now that he is back, Zepeda said, the first things on his to-do list were to call his wife in California, take a shower and then hit the rack for some much-needed sleep.

— Cindy Fisher

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