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Saturday, December 16, 2017 at 2:04 am

Heart-Felt Welcome For Returning Troops

BY MARION DAVIS — Journal Staff Writer

WARWICK — Master Sgt. James Smith had promised his daughter Haley that he would be back in time to see her graduate from Rhode Island College.

Commencement is this Saturday, and some 600 National Guard members from Rhode Island are still hard at work in the Middle East, with no immediate end in sight. But as luck would have it, Smith was able to keep his word.

Smith was one of 12 members of the 282nd Combat Communication Squadron who returned from duty yesterday morning, the first group to come home. They arrived at T.F. Green Airport just after 9 a.m., on a commercial flight from Baltimore.

A throng of anxious spouses, giddy children and relieved National Guard comrades awaited them at the foot of the arrivals escalator. They waved flags and balloons. And as the first beloved faces appeared above them, several began to weep.

Their heroes were home. Safe.

Haley Smith let her father hug her mother, Kathy, and her sister, Kaitlyn. She let him say hi to a coworker from Amtrak, Bob Samson, who had come to the airport with them. She jumped up and down as she waited.

Then she did what she’d been dying to do. She wrapped her arms around him from behind, and clung to her daddy. She was beaming. There was luggage to pick up, but they didn’t move.

Smith’s unit was deployed Jan. 20, for a mission of undetermined length. His group was stationed in Jordan, setting up telephone and Internet communications systems for military units. He was able to tell his wife and daughters where he was, but they had to keep it secret.

It was a new experience for the Smithfield family. In his 21 years with the Guard, Smith had only been deployed once before, his wife said: during Operation Desert Storm, when he was sent to Maryland.

Haley Smith said she wasn’t scared for her father: “He’s smart.” But it did help that he was in Jordan, not Iraq. “He was in a different time zone, so we knew he was kind of far away.”

And because of Smith’s particular job, they had one big perk: regular communication. They exchanged frequent e-mails, and even got to talk on the phone about once a week — at least “until things got really heavy,” Smith said.

Kathy Smith found out only Sunday that her husband was coming home.

Halfway around the world, surrounded by sand and dust and camel spiders, Smith was as happy as his family, but the news was “bittersweet.” He had left with a big group. Now only a dozen were leaving; the rest may remain for days or months.

Maj. Gen. Reginald A. Centracchio, commanding general of the Rhode Island National Guard, said he expects it will take “the better part of a year” to get the entire Rhode Island contingent home. And already, another unit is at Fort Dix, preparing to spend a year in the Persian Gulf area.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Centracchio said, 2,350 Rhode Island National Guard troops have been mobilized, the largest group since World War II. Many Guard members have been deployed two or three times in the last five years alone. “The people in this state should be extremely proud of them.”

Rhode Islanders have been fortunate in this war, Centracchio said. The entire 282nd Combat Communication Squadron has escaped injury, and no one has perished — though one guardsman from Rhode Island was injured.