First group of Benning soldiers returns

Almost 300 soldiers, including the entire 598th Maintenance Company, returned to Fort Benning late Wednesday night after completing 15-month combat tours in Iraq.

The much-delayed flight, which kept the soldiers in Kuwait for better than a week, touched down at Lawson Army Airfield shortly before midnight.

Hundreds of family members and friends waited inside Freedom Hall, the airport's spacious terminal, and watched on giant television screens as the soldiers exited their World Airlines charter.

"As soon as we saw them getting off that plane, it was no longer important that it took them so long to get back here," said Ed Rogers of Ellerslie, whose wife, Capt. Andrea Rogers, is the commander of the 598th.

More than 100 soldiers from the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat team's advance party were also aboard the aircraft. The remainder of the advance group is expected to return to Fort Benning Saturday afternoon.

Lt. Col. Scott Quagliata, the brigade's rear detachment commander, said Wednesday that Saturday's flight is scheduled to land at Lawson at 2:40 p.m. "We also have flights scheduled for May 2 (7:45 p.m.) and May 7 (8:50 p.m.)."

The advance party includes soldiers from each of the brigade's six battalions.

Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Lockett, a platoon sergeant with the 3rd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, was among those who had family waiting for him.

"He's going to be surprised to see how big Miguel has grown," said Carmen Lockett, who was busy photographing the proceedings while sons Patrick, 5, and Miguel, 1, carried signs welcoming home dad.

With chartered aircraft at a premium, due primarily because one carrier recently declared bankruptcy and cut ties with the Army, the Benning soldiers were stranded in Kuwait for about 11 days.

Rachael Villavicencio of Phenix City was originally told that the soldiers would be coming home on Saturday.

"I rescheduled my son's surgery for today, thinking my husband would be back by now," she said. "Of course, he wasn't." But the surgery went fine, the removal of a possible cancerous spot from son Leonardo, 16-months old. The family also has another son, Alejandro.

The family, which had arrived at Freedom hall well before 11 p.m. was finally reunited with Sgt. Alejandro Villavicencio, a tank mechanic with the 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment at 1:30 a.m. Thursday.

So why the two-hour wait between touch down and reunion with the families?

Soldiers must turn in their weapons and all sensitive material they may be carrying. In addition, there is a brief film to watch, a safety briefing and talks from unit commanders.

"Listen," said Steve Hargenrater, whose daughter Pfc. Stevie Hargenrater is a 598th soldier, "what's two hours after 15 months. I'm just excited to see her."

Hargenrater drove his Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic motorcycle 970 miles this week from his home in Meadville, Pa. to welcome his daughter.

"The neat things is that when she goes on block leave, she's going to climb on the back of my Harley and we'll take off for home."

The Welcome Home ceremony was the first of what could be as many as 20 at the airport over the next few weeks.

Col. Wayne Grigsby Jr., the 3rd Brigade commander, said Wednesday that the entire brigade should be home by the end of May.

Hopefully, there will be no more delays.

"Playing cards all day gets pretty old," said one 598th soldier who asked not to be identified.