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Family's Long Wait Ends in Relief

The Sinclairs rejoice as their son, a Marine corporal, arrives home after a third tour in Iraq. Another son was deployed twice.

October 02, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — Even among the three-timers, the Sinclair family stands out.

Rick and Sandy Sinclair had driven from their home in Phoenix to be at Camp Pendleton when their son Cpl. Jayme Sinclair, 22, returned from his third tour in Iraq.

A few months ago, the Sinclairs made the same trip when their older son, J.R. Sinclair, 25, returned from his second tour in Iraq.

One family, five combat tours. Six, if you count J.R.'s fiancee, who is also a Marine.

The Sinclairs were among hundreds of family members waiting one warm night last week at the base for the return of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment from its third tour. About 100 of the battalion's 1,100 Marines had made all three of the deployments to Iraq.

Jayme Sinclair, a quiet, almost shy young man who was training to be a massage therapist before joining the Marine Corps, fought his way into Baghdad in 2003, returned a year later for the battle of Fallouja and now was on his way home after seven months dodging roadside bombs and snipers on the streets of Ramadi in the Sunni Triangle.

For Rick and Sandy Sinclair -- he's a cement mason, she's a waitress -- the 2 1/2 years were fraught with anxiety over the possibility of getting the dreaded knock on the door from a casualty-notification officer.

The wait was long for the infrequent phone calls, occasional e-mails and their sons' safe return.

"When your kids are in Iraq, that's where your heart is," said Sandy Sinclair, 51. "You're not really having a life, you're going through the motions, waiting."

But now all the waiting was down to a few hours as word passed that the plane carrying about 260 of the Marines had landed at March Reserve Air Force Base in Riverside. From there they would take buses to Camp Pendleton.

The One-Five is only the second Marine battalion to finish a third tour in Iraq. More battalions will join what Marines call the "three-time club" when the 1st Marine Division returns to Iraq next year.

Fifteen Marines in the battalion were killed this year in combat, compared with 10 in 2004 and two in 2003. The Marine Corps does not release information about wounded; but in an e-mail posted halfway through this year's deployment, the battalion commander said 80 of his Marines had been wounded.

As the Sinclairs tired of listening to their CD of patriotic music, discussion drifted to which of Jayme's tours had been the most stressful on the family.

"The first was the worst -- nobody knew what was going to happen," said Samantha Sinclair, 20, wearing a "Marine Sister" T-shirt. "But they've all been bad."

Sandy Sinclair disagreed. She thought the third tour was the worst, even though she blamed Jayme's first tour for turning her hair gray.

The first and second were combat tours. The third was a violent limbo, as the Marines fought to bring stability to Ramadi but were on constant alert, unable to distinguish friend from enemy.

As an infantryman, Jayme Sinclair patrolled the streets and helped defend the government center where Iraqi officials work under constant threat of being killed by insurgents.

"The third was the hardest because they didn't know what was out there," said Sandy Sinclair. "Jayme would talk about snipers and losing more men this time than the other times."

With Jayme home, the Sinclairs planned a weekend at their vacation place in Laughlin, Nev., maybe some fishing, definitely some jet-skiing. A second daughter, Erica, 24, will join the family; only a can't-miss test at college prevented her from being at the One-Five homecoming.

Jayme told his parents that he wanted to unwind from the war zone at a blackjack table at one of the Laughlin casinos. He won $500 playing Texas Hold 'Em with other Marines on the trip back to the U.S.

When their loved ones are deployed to Iraq, military families find different ways to cope. Some who live on or near military bases join support groups organized by "key volunteers," usually the wives of officers or senior enlisted personnel. Some plug into Internet chat rooms.

The Sinclairs concentrated on work and family. Samantha worked toward getting her real estate license. Family members wore buttons with pictures of Jayme and J.R. in their Marine uniforms.

The family put a small banner with a blue star in the window, given to them by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, symbolic of having a child in a combat zone.

Rick Sinclair, 53, noticed that his neighbors seemed to have no idea what the star in their window meant.

Sandy Sinclair wore her button at work so that customers and others in her restaurant dared not criticize the war or President Bush. She said she was annoyed at Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, for leading a protest aimed at persuading Bush to pull U.S. troops from Iraq.

"I get mad at Cindy," she said. "Don't ask to bring my son home so the whole thing will be for nothing, a defeat, just like Vietnam."

Her husband agreed: "Americans are supposed to be finishers, not just starters."

When her sons returned from Iraq, Sandy Sinclair looked for what the Marine Corps warned families could be early signs of post-traumatic stress: moodiness, irritability, volatility. So far, she's seen no signs.

As the troops marched into sight, Samantha Sinclair was the first family member to spot Jayme. She screamed and raced toward him. They embraced as Sandy, Rick and J.R. waited their turns.

"You look good, you look so good," Sandy said, her voice trembling slightly.

Even in her joy at having Jayme home safe, Sandy Sinclair thought of the parents of the 15 Marines from One-Five killed in this deployment. "We're so lucky: There are some parents who aren't here today," she said.

With their enlistments up, J.R. is headed back to the University of Arizona, and Jayme is thinking of going to college to become a pediatrician. Neither of the Sinclairs' sons will be returning to Iraq.

"This is the happiest day of our lives," Sandy Sinclair said.

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