- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Mark Beadles has the size of the Marine he once was and the motorcycle cop he is now. But that imposing presence gave way to tears yesterday when he saw his son come home safe.

Cpl. Terry Beadles came ashore Memorial Day after nine months on a deployment that included combat in Iraq. He leapt from a patrol vehicle to hug his father and mother, Tami, before heading off with other members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

“I had two worries — one that he wouldn’t come home and the other one is that he would change. He didn’t. He’s still the little goofy kid I sent off to the Marine Corps. Thank God,” Mr. Beadles said.

Cpl. Beadles, 22, was one of 2,300 members of the unit who began arriving at Onslow Beach in small groups aboard landing craft from the USS Austin, USS Tortuga and USS Nassau.

Some arrived at the state port in Morehead City, about 25 miles to the northeast, where a crowd of well-wishers waved flags and cheered as the Austin pulled through Beaufort Inlet.

The unit sailed out in August for a standard six-month deployment that was extended to nine because of the war in Iraq. Now it is the first major contingent of Marines to return to the United States.

First to hit the beach were about two dozen Marines driving a small convoy of Humvees and trucks. The group was led off the landing craft by a small bulldozer flying a large American flag.

Several of the returning Marines were getting their first looks at sons and daughters born while they were away.

Christina Packard held her baby as she waited for her husband, Lance Cpl. William Packard, to come home from war. The Packards learned just before the unit departed that Mrs. Packard, 18, was pregnant. She moved to Westerville, Ohio, to stay with her parents while he was gone.

“It was hard, but I knew he was coming home and everything would be OK,” she said as she and her family shrugged off the muggy rain.

Yesterday was her first wedding anniversary, and Mrs. Packard held her 2-month-old daughter, Makayla, in her arms like a present for the husband who had yet to see his baby.

His gift to her? “As long as he’s coming home, that’s the best anniversary present you could have,” she said.

For those who made it ashore, even the damp sand of Onslow Beach was a welcome sight.

“It’s good to see U.S. soil, really good,” said Cpl. Travis Hoots of Roodhouse, Ill.

His wife, Jamie, met him on the beach carrying their 7-month-old son.

“I spent a lot of nights thinking about what this day would be like,” Cpl. Hoots said as he looked at his baby. “I’m just sort of dumbfounded.”

Keith Vaught, a dental technician 2nd class from Pearisburg, Va., was a bachelor when he went on his first deployment. Now he and his wife, Rhonda, have a 2-year-old son, Zachary, and a 7-month-old daughter, Amari.

“While I’m out there, I try not to think about it — stay focused on the job,” he said, but seeing his daughter for the first time is “like an explosion inside.”

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit left North Carolina aboard three ships in August, expecting a routine six-month patrol in the Mediterranean Sea. They were told in February that their deployment had been extended, then were sent to Kuwait to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. The unit was in battle less than 24 hours after it arrived.

The unit also saw duty in Kosovo, Kenya and northeast Africa. In all, about 15,000 ground troops from Camp Lejeune were sent to Iraq and Kuwait.

Communities all around Camp Lejeune prepared for the unit’s arrival. In some towns, small American flags were planted on highway medians. Outside the base’s main gate, bedsheets with painted welcome messages lined a fence at a military housing complex.

Yellow ribbons were everywhere — wrapped around trees and traffic signs, on cars and houses.

The joy of the return was tempered when a sailor fell off one of the three returning ships, the USS Nassau, some 900 miles from the Virginia coast and another went missing aboard the same ship.

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