No one got a bigger applause in Sunday’s homecoming ceremony for Maryland soldiers returning from a yearlong deployment in the Middle East than the last one across the stage: Sgt. 1st Class Ivan Keene.
It was Keene’s sixth deployment with the Maryland National Guard. The tractor-trailer driver from Baltimore served as assistant non-commissioned officer in charge, handling logistics issues in Kuwait and Iraq for the 29th Combat Aviation Brigade.
“This one was smooth sailing,” Keene said. “The team I was working with, they made it easier. We had fun. We did our work, but we had fun doing it.”
Gov. Larry Hogan and Maj. Gen. Linda L. Singh, commander of the Maryland National Guard, welcomed home the brigade in the ceremony at Aberdeen Proving Ground on Sunday afternoon, thanking them for their service and recognizing their achievements.
“Your service is in the finest traditions of citizen soldiers in our nation,” Hogan told the brigade. “We salute you on a job well done, and on behalf of a grateful state, we say welcome home.”
The 2,000-soldier brigade deployed to five different countries to support Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State, and Operation Spartan Shield, a mission to deter and react to threats in the region, according to the Maryland National Guard.
The 29th Combat Aviation Brigade controlled 120 aircraft, including attack, utility, cargo and medical evacuation helicopters, as well as other manned and unmanned reconnaissance, surveillance and war planes. The F Company, 1st Battalion, 111th Aviation Regiment provided air traffic control services to the brigade. The 126th Heavy Helicopter Company celebrated its return from Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan.
Singh praised the brigade and its leadership for their service over the past year. It was a challenging deployment, she said, especially given how spread out a mission the soldiers had been assigned.
“Welcome home, welcome home, welcome home,” she said, “and God bless you.”
The Maryland National Guard has dual roles, Hogan noted. The soldiers responded to the 2015 Baltimore riot and the 2016 Ellicott City flood on his orders, and they federalize to serve the Army during deployments.
He praised Keene, in particular, to a gaggle of news reporters after the ceremony.
“I thanked them for their service, and welcomed them back home — but him especially,” the governor said. “I said, ‘I salute you. We’re proud of you, and I can’t thank you enough.’ That’s a lot of serving your country.”
Col. Mark Beckler, the brigade’s commander, seemed to choke up as he finished his address to his soldiers.
While many day-to-day tasks were in a support capacity, the brigade never lost sight of the importance of its success — or of the often-drastic consequences “if they fly over the wrong mosque or the wrong neighborhood,” he said.
“We appreciate greatly the effort you gave us in taking care of each other and accomplishing the mission,” Beckler said.
He wished them well with their reintegration into their families and daily lives at home. Despite having few days off and little down time, he said, the brigade’s professionalism was on display all year.
“Everybody in this room — far from any disciplinary problems — we really had an exemplary year, in terms of your personal conduct, your professional conduct, and the role you played as ambassadors of the Army, the Maryland National Guard and our nation,” Beckler said.
Spc. Sam Trumble, his wife, Michelle, and their 1-year-old son, Benjamin, waited in line to take a picture with Hogan after the ceremony.
Now home with his family in Ellicott City, Trumble resumes his job in the internet technology department of Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring.
“We’re very happy to have him home,” Michelle Trumble said.
Cassie James downloaded a mobile app to tick off the days until her husband, Capt. Stephen James, a public affairs officer, returned home to Towson from Iraq. At one point, the couple went four months without being able to video chat, they said.
“It was a really hard year,” Cassie James said.
Sgt. Malcolm Burgess, who coordinated air traffic services, said the day-to-day life on deployment was grueling. But the Maryland soldiers made friends with their counterparts from Texas, who were stationed with them, and kept up a daily debate over whose state flag was better, he said.
“Looking back, it was a great time,” Burgess said.
Robin Howell had prayed long and hard in anticipation of Sunday’s ceremony. Burgess, her son, had left on his second deployment — the first to Afghanistan, this one to Iraq. Three of his sisters, Cassandra, 26, Felicia, 23, and Alexzandra, 21, attended the ceremony to cheer for their older brother.
“When he went on deployment, I went on deployment,” their 49-year-old mother said. “I prayed. I laid myself before God in prayer the whole time they were gone.”