278th members arrive back in county
SMYRNA -- Almost all of the Tennessee Army National Guardsmen from the Lewisburg Armory returned home Saturday through what had been a World War II bomber-training airport where relatives greeted them with hugs and kisses.
Some of the guardsmen are coming later, including a Lewisburg soldier who was scheduled for surgery in Iraq on Tuesday. All who landed in a Tennessee Air National Guard C-130 cargo plane from Camp Shelby, Miss., were healthy and glad to be home.
"I got to see them for five seconds," Staff Sgt. Billy Moorehead, of Cheese Road north of Petersburg, said of his family awaiting his completion of paperwork. "I can't wait to get all this paperwork done.
"I've enjoyed working with these guys, but I'm tired of looking at them," said Moorehead, a convoy commander who suffered a slight concussion as a result of the blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) while rolling in a convoy.
"My gunner had a ruptured eardrum," he said of Justin West of Lewisburg who was scheduled for surgery on Tuesday. "He's going to be OK. He had a concussion... My driver had some blast issues, constant ringing of the ears."
Moorehead, 53, works in shipping at the Goodman HVAC factory in Fayetteville.
"I was real lucky," he said of his family. "Everybody stayed healthy. I missed out on a birthday..."
Brad Foss of St. Ann Street, Lewisburg, a 29-year-old E-4, is a mechanic who ran convoy security. He served with his brother Patrick Foss of Holly Grove Road, Lewisburg.
"Brad was in the Marine Corps," Patrick said.
Brad interjects: "Our father, Glen Foss of Cornersville, was in the same National Guard unit when we got in and he was a first sergeant, and that's what made me want to come into the National Guard."
Their mother, Teresa Foss, works for the Tennessee Army National Guard's human resources department in Nashville and her duty on Saturday was to help soldiers process papers for their return to civilian life.
Patrick remembers "late and long nights" while in Iraq where he was a mechanic who made sure vehicles were ready as they left on another convoy.
Long nights for Pfc. Elizabeth Theresa (Owens) Gray, 20, got better on March 29 when she married Stephen Gray, a truck mechanic. The Army provides separate quarters for married couple on duty together.
Naturally, her parents were excited -- Marshall and Lisa Owens of Williams Cove Road, Winchester.
Stephen's proposal was "when I got back from a convoy one night. It was probably about 3 a.m.," she said.
They're looking for a house now. They're from Franklin County. They were dating before they left.
In Iraq, she drove an MRAP, a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected truck.
"It's a gun truck with a turret," she said. "We had some 50-cals and some smaller guns. We never had anything bad happen."
She's been in the Guard "since right after I graduated" from Franklin County High School in 2008.
The newly weds sat side-by-side as Teresa Foss helped them fill out forms from the other side of a table.
Stephen gently pulls the front of his shirt forward to show his sergeant stripes when his wife was asked for his rank and, before Elizabeth can answer, Teresa interjects, "She outranks him."
"Yes," the bemused husband says, "she does."
As Teresa Foss pulled civilian rank for the bride, Sgt. John Luna, 30, of Cornersville, was nearby.
"I've got two brothers-in-law in the unit," Luna said, naming Brad and Patrick Foss.
"Glad it was short," Luna said of the abbreviated deployment.
In a hallway just outside the main room of the Guard building was Jamie Sheppard and her family, waiting for her husband, Bennie. He was one of the 350 employees who were laid off by Sanford, the art pencil and Sharpie manufacturer that continues to make art pencils in South America and is planning on ink from a new plant in Manchester.
Laid off about one year ago, Sheppard is now "undecided" about what kind of work he wants. Monday night, he said he'd start looking again "after I get off (military) leave after the 17th this month. I'm going to spend time with my family until then."
He was called to report for deployment in December.
Saturday Sheppard said, "It was a thrill to see my family again. I was happy to be back on the ground to see the smiling faces of my loved ones. We had a big cookout for the Fourth of July with all my family."
In Iraq, Sheppard "kind of had it easy," he said. "We were convoy security over there. I monitored the convoys that went in and outside the wall. Inside, it was a safe barrier that was supposed to be secure. We saw a few rounds go inside. Nobody was hurt. We had some convoys that did get hit, but nobody was hurt."
Bennie has four daughters. Three were in Smyrna when the family spoke of his return. They are: Katrina, 4, named for the storm; C.J., 11, a Westhills Elementary School student; and Manchester resident Jamie Laymance, 23, wife of Joey Laymance who says Bennie is " cool" as a father-in-law.
The Laymances had a son born while the newborn's grandfather was in Iraq. Now, Kamryn Laymance is 4-1/2 months old.
Bennie Sheppard's other daughter, who was still arranging to welcome her father home, has a daughter, Alyssa, who will be three in August.
Bennie's mother, Freddie Sheppard of Fayetteville, was also in the hallway. She'd caught a glimpse of her son as he'd entered the Guard's processing station.
"He looked good to me," Freddie said. "While he was gone, I cried a lot. This was the third time for him to go. The first was Saudi Arabia, then Afghanistan and then Iraq.
Bennie's daughter, Jamie, said, "We're glad he came home early. He's never got to come home early before."
Her father left for this latest tour of duty on a Monday and three days later, Jamie had Kamryn.
"Since he's been over there, we've been able to see him on a Web-cam on the Internet," the young mother said, describing her father as "like a big kid. I love my dad."
To his friends in Shelbyville, Sgt. 1st Class Ricky McConnell said, "It's good to be home. We accomplished our mission to provide convoy security."
McConnell said so with William Rowe of Petersburg.
Nearby was Pfc. Benjamin Nichols, 22, of Flat Creek in Bedford County who was a gunner for a "Scout One Truck."
"We went out before anyone else did to make sure the roads were clear," Nichols said. "On a mission to Spiker, another base about 87 kilometers out on our last mission, there was a dust storm so bad we couldn't see five feet before us. It was horrible.
"There was an object on the side of the road," he said.
They wanted to check it out in case it might have been an IED, but couldn't because of the storm.
Then shots started, but they couldn't return fire because they didn't know where to shoot.
"They just popped shots every now and then" during a period of nearly four hours, Nichols said. When they finally identified the object that prompted them to stop, he said, "It was a car battery. We think that we possibly caught them in the act of planting an IED."
Others checking out included Specialist Stuart Rudy: "I live in Petersburg. It's a small town. I love it there. I drill in Lewisburg. I was a gunner. In Iraq, it was hot in the summer. This is good summer - it's home summer."
Nearby were Garrett Tucker of Culleoka and Jonathan Curtis of Winchester.
Staff Sgt. Miranda Bednar, 32, of Nashville is a junior high school teacher of English and pre-algebra at St. Pius the 10th, and "the friendships I made" are what she says will be memorable from her deployment.
Cpl. Chris Evans turned 39 on Monday. His son, Ethan, is a Lewisburg Middle School student. His other sons, Steven and Cameron, are Marshall County High School graduates.
Overseeing the soldiers' return was Assistant Adj. Gen. Bill Wenzler of Brentwood. Flights from Camp Shelby brought back the forward support company of the 1-181 Field Artillery headquartered in Athens and Dayton. Many of the soldiers are from Hamilton County. Those from the Lewisburg unit landed at about 1:15 p.m. They'd been expected at about 3 p.m
Wenzler emphasized the soldiers were flown by the 118th Airlift of the Tennessee Air National Guard, headquartered in Nashville.
Standing in the middle of what was probably the largest room in a Guard building at the Smyrna Airport, Wenzler said, "We can process 125-130 in about two hours."
Soldiers went from one processing station to another. Some dealt with financial issues. Others focused on health, legal and other concerns. Before departing Tennessee, there was a similar process for deployment.
"When they come back from war, we bring them through the same process... back into the National Guard pay system," Wenzler said.
While they were gone, they were in the U.S. Army.
Upon their return, the Guard makes sure they receive what they're entitled to, including mileage for them and their family from Smyrna to the soldiers' homes.
Family status changes, such as those for the Grays, are noted in records.
"Some get divorced. Some have babies," Wenzler said. "We make sure they are aware of all the benefits."
Prior to departure, two soldiers -- from units other than the Lewisburg -- died at Camp Shelby. "The preliminary ruling on both was heart attack. One was within a couple of weeks of deployment to Iraq. One was within a couple of days...
"We lost nobody in theater," the assistant adjutant general continued. "The entire 278th Cavalry is not at home yet."
They number some 3,300.
"About two-thirds are still there," Wenzler said. "They will continue to come home in increments through August.
"The reason why the 278th is coming home before their regular tour is complete is due to the President's reduction of forces in Iraq," he said.
It is withdrawal; "Yes, but planned," Wenzler said. "President Obama established a troop strength ceiling in Iraq shortly after he took office and ... that's what's going on right now. The strength is being reduced to meet that presidential directive.
"The reduction of strength of the forces in Iraq is part of the strategy to turn the operation over to the Iraqi government."
Among those returning later are Maj. Travis McKnight and Sgt. Maj. Jared McKnight, the sons of Marshall County Commissioner Larry McKnight, a colonel who leads the Tennessee National Guard Association, the advocacy group for guardsmen and women in Tennessee and nationally.