Master Sgt. Chris Lazar kisses his 3-year-old niece, Keira Messinger, on the head after homecoming ceremonies for the 153rd Military Police Company at the Gov. Bacon Parade Field in Delaware City on Sept. 28. The 153rd returned after nine months in Afghanistan assisting and training the Afghan police forces. (Kyle Grantham / The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journa)
Thousands cheered today at the Gov. Bacon Parade Field for the early homecoming of troops who served in Afghanistan.
A marching band playing “God Bless America” led the troops through a tunnel of signs flanking the road leading to the parade field. There were 127 handmade posters with pictures and messages of thanks for the troops flanking the road to the field — one sign for each member of the 153rd Military Police Company.
“I stand before you today with tears in my eyes because I’m so glad to see them all back safely,” said Maj. Gen. Francis D. Vavala, adjutant general of the Delaware National Guard.
This was the third deployment the 153rd Military Police Company of Delaware City has served since 2001. They were led on their mission to help train police abroad by Cmdr. Brian Malloy and 1st Sgt. Christopher Callahan. The soldiers returned last week to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, where they completed a 10-day demobilization program before they were able to return home.
Kim Cross, of Lewes, and 3-year-old daughter Bella held a poster with Bella’s handprints in red and blue paint. It had the message “hand over my daddy.” Staff Sgt. Timothy Cross and his wife missed seeing each other on their second wedding anniversary by one day.
“It’s great to have him back,” said father-in-law Bill Kneipp. “No more sleepless nights.”
Delaware’s Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, was with the troops in January when they said goodbye to loved ones. As promised, she was there today for the troop’s welcome-home event.
Many in the crowd were the families of the troops. Spouses, siblings, parents and young children held signs they made with special welcome-home messages. Many missed milestones in the lives of family while they were away. For the 153rd Military Police Company, one person missed the birth of a child, three people missed their first wedding anniversaries and eight people missed out on the first birthday of a child, Biden said.
“I know you have a lot of time to make up,” Biden said in remarks before the troops reunited with family and friends.
There were many personalized touches on welcome-home activities. Boy Scouts came in uniform from Troop 70, of St. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church to greet the father of one member. Master Sgt. Chris Lazar said he was looking forward to chowing down on a cheesesteak and the comfort of a "normal shower." He was grateful to see his family and friends.
“It is emotionally overwhelming,” he said, smiling at all the people around him.
Many of the soldiers in the 153rd have served more than deployment. Master Sgt. Marvin Hackett, of New Castle, has made it home safely four times. His girlfriend, who is also a veteran, made special “Team Hackett” T-shirts for the large group who welcomed him home.
“Are we proud of this guy or what?” Vavala said after stopping to shake hands with Hackett. His family cheered in response.
Among the leaders at the event who spoke words of encouragement from a bandstand stage were Gov. Jack Markell, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper and U.S. Sen. Chris Coons. Carper, who served in Vietnam, said no one was there to greet him or his peers when he returned from war, and said these events are important because they make sure veterans know they are valued.
The troops arrived home earlier than expected, which was a welcome surprise for many families.
State Guard officials said neither they nor the 153rd, which was replaced in western Kandahar by an active-duty Army unit, were given an explanation for why the unit, which expected to spend a standard nine months in the country, redeployed more than a month early. But according to a U.S. Central Command spokesman, it was the result of officials trying to meet force requirements and align deployment schedules for all units as the U.S. presence in Afghanistan gradually shrinks and ends as currently planned in December 2014.
“As we reassess the requirements, and to meet the president’s directive to draw down the boots on the ground, some units are no longer required,” Army Lt. Col. Christopher Belcher said Friday. “So they may be redeployed at a different time than they originally planned for.”
Belcher said that other Army units could see similar future schedule adjustments.
“As we draw down the troop strength in Afghanistan,” he said, “some units may have shorter tours based on reduced requirements for that type of unit.”