Demian Bulwa / San Francisco Chronicle – 2009-02-23 23:02:38
February 23, 2009) — For the last three months, Cpl. Vandoan Ngo slept in a fuel truck, which he parked in a series of fields in Iraq. He lay on the floor, face to the pedals. He was cold and dirty, taking just three showers in 93 days. And the fear of enemy attack was always there.
Then, on Sunday, Ngo resumed his life.
The 23-year-old UC Davis student from Hercules, along with more than 40 fellow reservists of the 23rd Marine Regiment, arrived in buses at 2:25 p.m. at their unit’s headquarters in San Bruno. They had just flown in to San Francisco International Airport.
After a seven-month deployment to Iraq, the young Marines — still dressed in their desert combat uniforms and carrying their rifles through the rain — were greeted by more than 200 weeping relatives and friends.
Though the Marines had expected they might not all make it back, no one from the regiment was lost or even seriously injured. Amid the cheering and flag-waving, though, Ngo and others admitted that returning home was more complicated than simply celebrating.
“It feels awkward,” said Ngo, standing with his parents and girlfriend in a gymnasium featuring “Welcome Home” signs and a small spread of snacks. “I don’t even know what to do. I don’t know how to start a conversation.”
Speaking in a voice that had become hoarse during the celebration on the plane home, Ngo said, “I’m pretty sure everything’s going to come around and we’ll transition back to being civilians.”
“It’s good not to be in Iraq anymore,” said Michael Wolff, a 33-year-old police officer from Santa Rosa who stood nearby with his mother. He added, “There’s a transition period. For the last seven months, I’ve been living in a very specific way, and this is very different.”
Before the Marines walked in, the regiment’s executive officer, Tom Prentice, thanked the family members. And he said the Marines will continue to need support. They’re not used to home-cooked meals and other everyday rituals, he said. Some may benefit from a tight embrace, while others may need to spend time alone.
“You might see there’s a little bit of a shock,” Prentice said. “That’s normal.”
A few of the Marines had to leave young children behind when they were assigned overseas. Christopher Meade, a 36-year-old San Jose resident and Santa Cruz County prosecutor, burst into tears when he emerged from the bus to see his wife, Katerina, and his 15-month-old son Dominik.
With no support network in the United States, Katerina had stayed with her family in the Czech Republic during the deployment. Every few weeks, she e-mailed her husband a video of his son — whom he saw walk for the first on Sunday.
Standing at the Marine headquarters, Meade showed off the crumpled photo of Dominik he had carried with him in Iraq. A photo of his wife, he said, had been lost, blown by the desert wind out of a turret.
“I feel really good now,” Meade said. “We all came back.”
E-mail Demian Bulwa at email@example.com.
© 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.
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