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Back home from the war

Spouses and children joyfully reunite with members of a Marine battalion returning to Camp Pendleton.

October 06, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — While other children nearby were playing and laughing, 4-year-old Jaden Williams was quietly focused on one thought:

"My daddy is coming home today," he said in a calm but resolute voice.

Indeed, Marine Cpl. George Williams, 22, was among more than 170 Marines and sailors from the 1st Intelligence Battalion, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force who enjoyed their first day home Sunday after a seven-month deployment to Iraq.

As word spread throughout the sprawling base that the plane bringing the troops had landed Saturday night at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, hundreds of family members anxiously assembled at a parade ground to await the buses bringing the troops home.

Long ago, the Marine Corps had a saying: If a Marine were meant to have a family, the Corps would have issued him one.

"You don't hear anybody say that anymore," said Sgt. Maj. Donald George, a 26-year veteran of the Corps.

Now, there are myriad programs to help stay-behind spouses and children cope with the loneliness and stress brought on by each deployment. These days, the Corps' mantra is "combat readiness starts with family readiness."

Jaden is old enough to have a basic idea about why his father went away, said his mother, Jewel Williams, 21.

"He knows 'Daddy is fighting a war to make us safe,' " she said as she waited for her husband. "But he still gets confused and upset."

The military warns families that children may go through alternating periods of acting out and then withdrawing emotionally during the deployment of a parent.

One strategy is for spouses to surround their children with loving grandparents and other family members. Kelly Stevens, whose husband, Staff Sgt. Cory Stevens, was returning, took the couple's three children -- Devin, 11; Carson, 8; and Paityn, 4 -- to Minnesota and stayed with her family.

Another strategy is to try to keep the deployed parent as visible as possible. The Intelligence Battalion used video-conferencing facilities to allow Marines and sailors to see and speak to their families.

Staff Sgt. Justin Erickson, 35, left behind a video of him reading a Dr. Seuss book to his son, Dane, who is 1 year old. "It became our bedtime ritual," said Erickson's wife, Heather, 35.

Some of the Marines and sailors came home Saturday night to cradle their newborns for the first time.

Cpl. Wesley White, 22, held his 1-month-old daughter, Payton.

Ashley White, 19, said she and her husband have been talking about their first post-deployment outing: to San Diego's Wild Animal Park.

"It's a family thing," she said.

But even as spouses greeted their loved ones, they knew that other deployments and more emotionally charged separations lie ahead.

The Marines are decreasing their numbers in Iraq, but an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan remains.

In both war zones, the need for military intelligence is crucial, and that could mean another deployment soon for this battalion.

"That's our life," said Christine Bernneis, 25, as night fell and her two children, Kiley, 2, and Hayden, 3, looked for their father, Staff Sgt. James Bernneis, 28, returning from his second deployment.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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