Main: Welcome Home Marines

By Abby Morris-Frye
star staff

  GRAY -- Welcome home Marines!
  Family and friends of the Marines of Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Marine Corps Regiment gathered at the Appalachian Fairgrounds Saturday night to welcome home their loved ones who have been serving in Iraq for approximately the last seven months.
  The members of Lima Company, which is a United States Marine Corps Reserve unit were notified on Christmas Eve of 2003 that the were being called to active duty as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. On Jan. 13, 2004, the group departed from Gray headed for Camp Pendleton, Calif., where they received additional training before departing for the Middle East on Feb. 19.
  Signs and banners lined Old Gray Station Road and covered buildings and fences at the fairgrounds expressing sentiments such as "Welcome Home Lima Company," "Leathernecks Rock," "Thank you son," and "Welcome Home Daddy."
  Many family members were wearing t-shirts bearing the Lima Company and Marine Corps logo while others carried signs sending messages to their loved ones or were waving American flags.
  Spirits were high as the crowd waited to catch a glimpse of their Marines.
  The Marines returned in two separate flights to the Tri-Cities Regional Airport, but Lima Company arrived at the fairgrounds in a single group to cheers and admiration, as well as a good old-fashioned Tennessee barbecue dinner. The 'Aw Shucks Cooking Team' from Sevier County donated their services to provide the returning Marines with their choice of a barbecue rib dinner or a pulled pork barbecue sandwich dinner with all the trimmings.
  "It's an honor for us to be able to do this for these guys, but it's nothing compared to what these boys have done fighting for their country," said Jim Robinson who, along with his wife Karen, runs the Aw Shucks Cooking Team.
  Many family members waited with anticipation for their Marine to return. At approximately 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, news got out to those awaiting the return of the Marines that the second flight had been delayed. That news, however, did not dampen spirits. Many family members stated that they had waited seven months to see their loved ones, so they could wait a few more hours.
  Among those waiting were Pauletta and Ken Pierce of Carter County, who were waiting on their son, LCpl. David Pierce.
  According to both Pauletta and Ken, the hardest part about having their son on active duty with the Marines in Iraq was not knowing where he was or what he was doing. "For me, the hardest part was not knowing where he was at," Pauletta said. "So every time you saw something on the news about a Marine getting killed at this place or that place, you wondered if it was yours."
  The Pierce's were able to hear from their son while he was deployed. David called home, sent the family letters and talked with his twin brother Daniel via the Internet.
  "It equaled out to once about every three weeks or a month," Pauletta said of how often David would call. "He said some of the guys would call home about every day. He said he didn't call home as much because every time he called home it made him homesick."
  David turned 25-years-old on Aug. 10 while he was in Iraq. "I sent him a birthday party," Pauletta said, as she laughed. Pauletta and Ken packed up a case of Little Debbie cakes, chips, salsa, a gallon jar of peanuts and Gatorade and shipped it to David.
  "She wrote 'Happy Birthday' all over the boxes so they all knew what it was and there was no denying it," said Ken, adding that that the Marines would tease each other and horse around when one of them had a birthday.
  Also among those waiting were Lee and Lisa Morrow, the parents of Cpl. Nathan Morrow, who along with three other Marines from the unit was injured in March when an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded next to the Humvee he was riding in as part of a convoy in Iraq.
  As a result of his injuries, Nathan sustained serious injuries to his face including damage to his vision and hearing, but according to Lisa, her son has made a remarkable recovery.
  "Nathan has 20/20 vision with glasses now," she said. "They did not have to do a cornea transplant. My son is a walking miracle. His hearing came back to 95 percent, which is better than the rest of the family. Prayer, that's why he can see."
  Nathan returned to Elizabethton in early April on a two-week leave before returning to Camp Pendleton, where he waited on the rest of his unit to return to the United States. On Saturday, Nathan flew with Lima Company from California to the Tri-Cities.
  It was approximately11:45 p.m. Saturday night when the awaiting crowd heard the sounds of sirens in the distance, signaling the arrival of the Marines.
  As the members of Lima Company filed off of the buses to fall into a final formation before being released to their families, cheers erupted as the loved ones first caught a glimpse of their Marines.
  After the formation, the crowd rushed forward to embrace the returning Marines. Pauletta Pierce quickly found her son David and as the two hugged one another, tears streamed down both of their faces. David laughed and joked with his family, friends and members of his church who showed up to welcome him home. His brother Daniel was not able to make it, but he spoke to David by phone. David's older brother Scott was able to be there to see his brother's return.
  When asked what the first thing he would do now that he was home was, David laughed and then replied "Probably go to bed." He then smiled and hugged his mother. "And then I expect breakfast in the morning, biscuits and gravy. They don't make good biscuits and gravy over there," he said as he laughed with his arm around his mother's shoulders.