Oct. 21, 2007 — The Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas was almost packed to capacity Sunday afternoon, as family members, friends and government officials turned out en masse to welcome home the 786th Quartermaster Battalion, a group of 26 courageous soldiers returning from their tour of duty in Iraq.
Prior to the arrival of the battalion's flight, a large group of V.I. National Guardsmen lined up on one side of the airport, eagerly waiting to cheer on the returning troops. On the other side of the building, family members crowded around the gate, some standing on their tip-toes to get the first glimpse of the loved ones who had been deployed to the Middle East for more than a year.
The flight landed around 2:10 p.m. Armed with cameras, bright smiles and a few tears, the group collectively clapped and yelled as the battalion's members came down the airplane stairs and down the sidewalk leading to the gate. Four bright green fire trucks lined up on the runway simultaneously blew their horns and flashed their sirens as the troops walked down the gangplank.
Walking up to greet the group as they disembarked was Gov. John deJongh Jr., flanked by Adjutant General Renaldo Rivera and other top National Guard officials.
The noise got louder as the soldiers moved inside and hugged their families amidst the loud caroling of tunes provided by a student band and a mini-parade replete with majorettes and cheerleaders.
The soldiers' accomplishments were heralded soon after by deJongh, Rivera and other officials who gathered to participate in a brief welcome home ceremony. Setting the mood for the event, Sgt. Stedwart Lee offered up a heartfelt prayer, thanking God for the battalion's safe return.
"Once again, you have shown great love for us by safely bringing home our loved ones," Lee said. "And for that, we give to you our heartfelt thanks and praise."
The group's trials and tribulations were outlined in remarks given by Master Sgt. Hillis Benjamin, who called the past 14 months a "long hard deployment for the battalion."
She explained that the group, upon its arrival, was put in charge of the Camp Taji Military Base in Taji, Iraq.
"We were like a city mayor," she joked after the ceremony. "We ran the city and made sure the troops had everything they needed to go out and complete their missions. We had nine days of on-the-job training. We had to learn fast, and we had to deliver, and deliver big."
Most days the troops served in extreme heat, sometimes up to 138 degrees, she added.
"So, it definitely feels good to be home," Benjamin said. "I'm looking forward to spending time with my family and friends, and getting to the beach as much as possible."
While laughter abounded during Sunday's ceremony, much time was also spent remembering two of the V.I. National Guard's fallen soldiers, Sgt. First Class Floyd Lake and Lt. Col. David Canegata III, who both died in January when a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter they were aboard went down near Baghdad. All 12 soldiers in the chopper were killed.
"We would all like to thank God for watching over us, protecting us, allowing us to complete our mission successfully and for bringing us home safely," said the battalion's commander, Lt. Col. Michael McDonald. "But, not all of us have come home safely, and today we honor our two fallen heroes, Sgt. First Class Floyd Lake, and Lt. Col. David Canegata — my cousin, and friend. Even though they've passed on from this life, God has sent them to watch over us and to be our guardian angels."
McDonald, who has also been dealing with the recent death of his father, Dr. Sylvester McDonald, held back tears as he spoke, but still remained optimistic while he talked to his group.
"I would like to thank you soldiers for your professionalism, commitment, patriotism," he said. "Our success was that of a team. We did it. I could not have done it alone."
Leaving the airport after the emotional ceremony, many soldiers spent several minutes wrapped in long hugs with family members, who in turn showered the troops with kisses, flowers and balloons.
"I'm so happy to see everybody again," said Master Sgt. Omodoso Muhammad, whose wife, Norma, and daughters stuck close by his side throughout the morning. "I really want to thank everyone in the Virgin Islands for continuing to pray for us, and for helping to bring us all back home safely."
Norma Muhammad continued to brush tears from her eyes as she held onto her husband, who said he is going to be taking a little time off before returning to his job as a V.I. police officer.
"We have five children," she said. "And we've continued to support him all the way, every minute. And not a day went by that he didn't call — every day for 13 months, we knew we could expect to hear from him, no matter the time. We're so happy to have him back with us now. The first thing we're going to do is go on a vacation. It's a trip from me to him, and he can pick wherever he wants."
Members of the battalion unit are:
— Staff Sgt. Samuel Abraham, St. Croix (second deployment to Iraq)
— Command Sgt. Maj. Leonard Amey
— Capt. Camella Andrews (second deployment to Iraq)
— Spc. Tashaia Bedminster (second deployment to Iraq)
— Master Sgt. Hillis Benjamin
— Pfc. Ronal Brewley
— Staff Sgt. Bernard Burke (second deployment to Iraq)
— Lt. Col. Patricia Charles, St. Croix
— Capt. Nina Clarke-Brewley
— Sgt. Dwayne Degraff
— Staff Sgt. Susanatte Grosvenor
— First Lt. Arthur Hector
— First Lt. Josephine Hector-Murphy
— Spc. Hes Matthew
— Spc. Margaret Moore
— Master Sgt. Omodoso Muhammad
— Maj. Brian O'Reilly, St. Croix
— Maj. Sally Petty
— Sgt. 1st Class Enrique Santos, St. Croix (second deployment to Iraq)
— Spc. Crystal Testamark
— Spc. Adasi Thomas
— Maj. Gladys Turnbull
— Spc. Mark Williams
— Sgt. Oswald Williams
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