Christmas wait over for 18 soldiers from the 535th Engineer Company
January 11, 2009
GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Christmas came more than a week late for friends and families of 18 soldiers from the 535th Engineer Company.
The soldiers, who deployed to Iraq in October 2007, were welcomed home Friday night, after 15 months and two Christmases away from loved ones.
The rest of the company made it home just before Christmas but key personnel stayed behind until last week to help their replacement unit adjust, according to Capt. Jason Meier, the company’s rear detachment commander.
The engineers’ mission involved building combat outposts that allowed U.S. “surge” forces to occupy Baghdad neighborhoods and drive out insurgents, he said.
Another engineer on hand to greet the returning troops — Sgt. Caleb Scowden, 23, of Greenville, Mo. — wore a brace on his ankle. Scowden was airlifted to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center after he broke his leg in an accident clearing a path to a helipad in Iraq, he said.
The deployment involved plenty of time driving Iraq’s dangerous roads, filling blast craters and clearing debris that insurgents might use to hide roadside bombs. Every member of the unit survived the mission but several were badly injured by roadside bombs, Scowden said.
Mary-Lou Hernandez and her son David, 8, were part of an excited crowd of family members who cheered loudly as the 535th soldiers arrived at Grafenwöhr shortly before midnight.
After 15 months in the desert, Staff Sgt. Dave Hernandez, 31, of El Paso, Texas, stepped off a bus and found himself in the arms of his wife and son.
“This Christmas was pretty depressing without him,” Mary-Lou Hernandez said, adding that the family saved Christmas presents to give out once her husband got home.
“It’s a relief to finally be home with my family and that everybody made it home safe,” Dave Hernandez said.
The past Christmas was Hernandez’s fifth away from home with the Army. Since he joined in 1997 he’s spent four Christmases in Iraq on three separate deployments and one in Kosovo, he said.
Downrange soldiers make the best of a Christmas away from home and work hard to cheer one another up, he said. But there’s no substitute for being with family.