Louisiana guard gets warm welcome on return from Guantanamo

The Southwest Airlines jet was still rolling across the Baton Rouge Airport tarmac Friday morning when a cheer went up from a flag-waving crowd of about 150 people awaiting loved ones returning from a yearlong deployment with the Louisiana National Guard at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

As the 80 members of the 2228th Military Police Company, 773rd Military Police Battalion, disembarked just before noon, the crowd surged out of the Louisiana Aircraft hangar, through a yellow police-tape barrier and into the arms of their sons, daughters, fathers and mothers.

“Thank you Jesus! Thank you Jesus!” Shirley McClendon tearfully declared as she fell on the neck of her grandson, Spc. Austin Ross, of Baton Rouge. “I’m so thankful you made it home.”

“I missed all of them — a lot,” Ross said with a wide grin as his wife, Jasmine Ross; his mother, Joann Williams; and his brother, Johnny, 13, crowded into his arms.

“We’re gonna sit back and talk about all the things he missed out on and give him his favorite meal,” Ross’ mother said about the rest of the day’s plans.

The 2228th, based at Camp Beauregard in Pineville, conducted security operations at Guantanamo Bay in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, according to National Guard officials. Guantanamo Bay, or Gitmo, is where the U.S. has held detainees from the war on terror.

The Louisiana National Guard unit’s commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Rollins, of Sulphur, said he could not describe the group’s mission at Gitmo because “it’s classified.” He did say, “the soldiers’ performance was outstanding, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Morale was never down — it was a great crew.”

Their loved ones were happy to see the soldiers back home Friday.

Spc. Alex Flowers, of Morgan City, broke ranks, dropped to one knee and asked Regan Baudoin, of Raceland, holding their 4-month-old baby Alexis, to marry him. She accepted as relatives and other soldiers nearby cheered.

Flowers, like some of the others, had been home once during the year for a week — to see his baby — but most of the company had not seen their family except in photographs on Facebook or other social media. Live video Internet feeds, like Skype or Face Time, and even phone calls were not available, the soldiers said.

Ron and Liz Arnold, of Westlake, along with their daughter Whitney, quickly found their daughter Spc. Raina Arnold, 25, a Lake Charles airport firefighter when she is not deployed, in the joyful crowd. They had already posted a string of “Welcome home Raina” signs along the highway leading into Westlake for the returning MP to see as they arrived back home.

“It’s been tough — we missed her a lot,” Ron Arnold said. “We’re glad she’s home.”

Jessie and Dena Waller, of Lake Charles, were awaiting the arrival of her twin sons, Spcs. Justin and Corey Duplechin.

“I was glad it wasn’t a combat zone, and I’m glad they were able to go together,” Dena Waller said of the deployment. “It’s been tough to not be able to talk to them.”

“I’m extremely proud of them,” Jessie Waller said about the men he’s raised since they were 10 years old. “I love them to death. I missed the heck out of them.”

When they got off the plane, Corey Duplechin’s wife jumped into his arms and Justin Duplechin’s girlfriend did the same. Both grinned and teared up as friends and family crowded around them.

“It feels great to be home,” Justin Duplechin said after holding his brother’s baby for the first time, then passing it to a nearby grandmother so he could hug his girlfriend some more.

The National Guard unit that returned from Gitmo had participated in state response and recovery operations of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Isaac, as well as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and flood operations in 2011.

The unit’s soldiers also deployed overseas in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2008 and in support of humanitarian relief efforts to Haiti in 2010 and 2011.