- The Washington Times - Friday, December 19, 2003

ABERDEEN, Md. — The men and women of the 115th Military Police Battalion of the Maryland National Guard were pressed into duty almost immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The day after the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the unit was standing guard duty at the Pentagon. Then, they helped set up Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and guard the prisoners there from Afghanistan and Pakistan. After that, the 115th spent eight months in Iraq guarding the airport outside Baghdad.

Now, their service is finished.

About 250 people, including family, friends and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., gathered yesterday at Aberdeen Proving Ground to welcome the unit home. As the guardsmen filed into a gymnasium just after dawn, the crowd screamed and cheered, many waving flags and red, white and blue balloons. Several children carried “Welcome Home, Daddy” signs.

“This is it for these guys,” said Maj. Charles Kohler, a spokesman for the Maryland National Guard. “They saw what happened on September 11 and started showing up. They were at the Pentagon on Sept. 12. They’ve certainly done enough.”

Sgt. Michael Ward, 33, had tears in his eyes as he talked about seeing his baby daughter for only the second time.

“Last time I saw my daughter she was 5 days old, now she’s 41/2 months old. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” Sgt. Ward said.

“For the last two years, the people we’ve dealt with and the experiences we had — I think it’s made me a better man and better soldier. Now, it’s time to be a father and a husband,” Sgt. Ward said.

His wife, Regina, 33, a stay-at-home mom, said her daughter is going to take a long time to get used to having her father around.

“It’s going to break his heart at first because she just doesn’t know him,” Mrs. Ward said. “Hopefully, he’ll be patient, and she’ll come around.”

Some members of the unit said the intensity of their mission — they have had a total of six months off since September 11, 2001 — surprised them.

“I don’t think anyone expected a war to break out when they joined,” said Theresa Williams, 38, a makeup artist who was meeting her fiance, Sgt. Duane Murrill, 37. “We expected more of a weekend thing. These last two years have been stressful, very difficult.”

Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Durand, 33, an Anne Arundel County police officer, said she is going to have to get used to running water, appliances, electricity and “real food.”

She said the first thing she plans to do when she gets home is clear out anything in her closet that reminds her of her military uniform. “I’m never wearing tan again if I can help it,” Sgt. Durand said.

Capt. Edwin Leavitt, 41, a physician’s assistant from Forest Hill, said his first priority was to move away from the aggression that was part of daily life in Baghdad.

“You have to get used to not driving with a machine gun on the top of your automobile,” he said. “Here, your biggest problem is finding a parking spot at the mall to do your Christmas shopping.”

Capt. Leavitt said he knew on September 11 that his life was going to change when he saw the news coverage of the twin towers falling.

“It’s amazing that the actions of so few would have such an impact on so many for such a long time,” he said. “And it’s not just me, it’s all of us. A lot of people I know over there are not coming back.”

The troops’ families had known for about a month that the battalion was coming home.

“This unit has been the tip of the spear in the war on terrorism,” Maj. Kohler said. “It’s time for them now to spend time with their families.”

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