CARVILLE — The Fourth of July got off to an emotional, flag-waving start Thursday morning as 65 members of the Louisiana National Guard stepped off a bus to soak up hugs, tears and cheers from about 300 friends and family awaiting their return from a long deployment in Afghanistan.
Tasked with treating and transporting the injured, the 756th Area Support Medical Company had departed from the Gillis W. Long Center on Sept. 3, 2012, and served at six operational sites from Bagram to Kabul, Afghanistan.
“I’m glad to be home!” declared Jonathan Bibben after a very long, tight embrace with Aimee Hall, the mother of his daughter, Jordyn Bibben, who was 2 months old when he left in September.
The baby, now walking and wearing a red, white and blue tutu specially made for this occasion, seemed not quite sure who this man picking her up was.
“I love your dress,” Bibben told baby Jordyn as he kissed her over and over.
Hall and Bibben, both EMTs for Acadian Ambulance, communicated every day via
iPads, she said. “It was hard, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”
The unit’s commander, Maj. Tarren Kingsley, said the deployment went “really good. We didn’t have any battle injuries in our unit. We treated around 38,000 patients, some civilians, mostly military, some NATO forces as well.”
Kingsley characterized the tour’s highlights as, “getting everybody home safe — that how we measure our success.”
The unit deployed last year from Fort Hood, Texas. They arrived there again Wednesday, then rode a bus all night back to Carville, arriving around 8 a.m.
The Long Center’s parking lot and lawns were festooned with banners and welcome signs. Many family members held up welcome home signs for loved ones. On the back of one little boy’s T-shirt was embroidered, “I have waited 228 days to hug my Mommy.”
Demetrious Vaughn, who has already served one tour to Afghanistan and is deploying there again later this summer with the 927th Combat Engineers to clear roadside bombs, was waiting for his wife of 10 years. They have six children ranging in ages from four to 15.
“It’s been tough but we got through it,” Vaughn said. “I got to see the other side of the mommy-coin. We do a lot of praying.”
Mona Duplessis was waiting for her husband Russel, who was returning from his fifth deployment including several while serving in the Navy.
Her son Blake also serves in the National Guard. The separation is not as bad now as it used to be, Duplessis said.
“Before, when he was in the Navy, we had to sit at home by the phone but now we have cellphones and Facebook and it’s a lot easier — and a lot less stressful,” she said. “It’s exciting for him to be coming home.”
Buren “Ric” Moore, of Central, was there with about two dozen members of his family awaiting his son, Sgt. Brett Moore. Ric Moore retired from the Louisiana National Guard in 2007, having served around the world, including Vietnam, and performed the same job his son now does.
“It’s worse staying home than going,” Moore said when asked for a dad’s perspective. “It’s easier for us to go than to send your children. It’s harder on the families than it is on the soldier.”
They were all going to Florida for a baseball tournament in a few weeks after Brett “gets back in the swing of things,” Ric Moore said.
“It’s great to see so many people here,” Brett Moore said after hugging and kissing everyone. “It went really well. There were some exciting times and a lot of hard work. Coming home is the main thing we look forward to.”
Jessie Sanders, 83, was carrying her Bible and wearing a white blouse and a blue patriotic-theme homemade vest with “made in America” emblazoned on the back. She was there, she said, because her four now-deceased brothers all served in the military and she wanted to be there for the safe return of her nephew, Octave Allen.
“I was here when he deployed and I wanted to be here when he returned,” Sanders said. “I’m here to thank God for bringing him — and me — here one more time.”
Larry Hatch, 68, a Vietnam veteran wearing a white VFW golf shirt and VFW garrison cap, was moving deliberately among the returning soldiers shaking hands with as many as possible.
It’s important, he said, to show the young veterans “we care about them.”