From warfront to homefront for the holidays

Lacey Duthu, center, of Chesapeake Beach, and her three sons, Alex, 9, from right, Austin, 11, and Aiden, 2, wait in front of the custom exit at BWI's international terminal for her husband and dad Master Sgt. David Duthu, of the USAF.
Lacey Duthu, center, of Chesapeake Beach, and her three sons, Alex, 9, from right, Austin, 11, and Aiden, 2, wait in front of the custom exit at BWI's international terminal for her husband and dad Master Sgt. David Duthu, of the USAF. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

Alerted via Facebook, connected by Skype, Joseph Vencill was able to "be" in the delivery room for the birth of his first child even though he was serving in Iraq at the time. Still, there's only so much you can do by satellite.

"I'm not sure how much help I was," Vencill, 28, said of his remote role at the bedside of his wife, Jamie, during a five-hour labor that ended in the June 26 birth of their son, Kaiden.

With the war over in Iraq, Vencill, a National Guardsman who lives in Bel Air, is among the thousands of troops who won't have to miss additional milestones, making it home in time for the holidays.

"I'm really glad to be home for Christmas, mainly because of my son," Vencill said. "I didn't want to miss his first Christmas."

Whether it's a child's first holiday or a generations-old tradition, the season's joys are particularly meaningful this year for families who have welcomed home loved ones from service, not only from the just concluded war in Iraq but also the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.

For many returning service members, their first steps on the homefront are at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, a particularly busy entry point for charter flights ferrying troops from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

With as many as five such flights a day, the lower level of Concourse E played host to countless happy reunions last week. Family and friends, along with volunteers from Operation Welcome Home Maryland, cheered and mobbed the returning service members, many of whom seemed dazed by both the festive crowd and the realization of how much time had passed since they last saw their loved ones.

"This one's almost as tall as me," marveled Air Force Master Sgt. David Duthu as he tousled the hair of the oldest of his three sons, 11-year-old Austin.

The Chesapeake Beach family had waited mostly patiently — the exception being two-year-old Aiden, who was up way past his bedtime — late Wednesday night, as seemingly every one of the 357 service members and civilians on the flight from Ramstein Air Base in Germany made it through customs and baggage claim before Duthu.

He had been texting his wife, Lacey — "just one more bag" — from behind security, before finally emerging to the saucer-eyed excitement of his sign-waving older sons.

"U the Man! Glad you're home," said Austin's sign, to which this member of the texting generation added his version of a heart: <3. "Welcome back #1 Dad," said 9-year-old Alex's sign.

A medic serving the past six months in Kandahar, Duthu was supposed to remain in Afghanistan until next year, but was able to get home earlier, in time for Christmas and to help pack up the family's home for a transfer to his next posting, an air base in Illinois.


Each opening of the double doors separating the secure area produced another flurry of squeals and hugs, a scene made even more festive by the airport's towering Christmas tree decorated in blue and silver and a Santa Claus occasionally bleating a holiday tune on a bagpipe.

One member of an airborne unit came through, found her guy in the crowd and hugged him tight, jumping up to wrap her legs around his waist. Other passengers, troops in desert camouflage and civilians on holiday leave with their children in footie pajamas and pets in crates, streamed by on either side of the private island of two.


Sometimes the reunions are preludes to nuptials.

"I've seen five proposals myself," said Bud Laumann, 69, one of the Operation Welcome Home Maryland team leaders who organizes volunteers to greet the returning service members, offer them handshakes, goodie bags of snacks and help with their luggage.

John and Audrey Lee of Annapolis were at BWI to reclaim their 20-year-old son, John, an airman who returned from an 18-month tour in Turkey.

"MagicJack, Skype, Facebook, you name it," the elder John Lee, an Annapolis police detective, said of how they stayed in touch. Still, the couple added, nothing is like having him home in person for the holidays.

Audrey Lee said she was "absolutely thrilled," especially because her son was serving abroad over the last holiday season. "It was our first Christmas without him."

As the final convoy of troops exited Iraq last Sunday, many of the last service members made their way back home in the past week. The drawdown has been in the works for some time now, bringing troop levels from a high of 166,000 in 2007 to 50,000 by this summer, according to the Pentagon. The withdrawal sped up in the fall, and by the end of the year, fewer than 200 service members will remain in the country, working in the embassy and with Iraqi security forces.

Sgt. Joshua Montgomery, a 34-year-old member of a Fort Meade-based Army unit, was convinced by his wife to keep his return this week a surprise for their 13- and 8-year-old sons and nearly 3-year-old daughter — not easy to do when his elder son would Facebook him, asking when he was coming home.

Now, he's looking forward to the kids opening presents Christmas morning, spending time with close friends later in the day and simply enjoying being back in the family fold.

"My little girl doesn't let me go," Montgomery said happily.

Other area service members have had even more time to transition back into family life. The Havre de Grace-based 1729th Forward Support Maintenance Company, a Maryland National Guard unit, has been home from Iraq since Dec. 3. All told, the Maryland Guard had 3,300 deployments to Iraq over the course of the conflict, said 2nd Lt. Jessica Donnelly, a spokeswoman. The guard still has 1,100 soldiers serving abroad.

Since coming home, Joseph Vencill has been a Mr. Mom, taking care of his new son Kaiden while his wife Jamie is at work, although he plans to return to his own job as a mechanic after the New Year.

After 70- and 80-hour work weeks in Iraq, even taking care of a new baby is a breeze, he said. "Everything stays so clean, and the laundry is always done," says his wife, Jamie, 26.


But mostly, she is grateful that father and son are getting so much bonding time. She had worried that the baby would be scared of this stranger, even if his voice was familiar from phone calls and the tapes he made singing or reading books. As it turned out, though, there was no need to worry.

"The baby just loves every second with him. He just lights up," she said.

And, for the record, Jamie Vencill said that her husband was a great help while Skyping with her in the delivery room.

Children are also the focus in the household of Sgt. Mark Ashford, another member of the unit. He has spent his time home getting reacquainted with his now 2 1/2-year-old son, also named Mark. And, courtesy of a two week leave he got in August, he and his wife Nicole are preparing for what he calls their "R&R baby," a girl due in May.

"It's real crazy, you leave and he's just starting to walk," Ashford, 27, said. "You come home and he's climbing over everything."


Now, he's just waiting for something he had missed in Iraq, where he once saw the temperature soar to 129 degrees: "I can't wait for it to snow," Ashford said.

For his wife, being separated from her husband this year put her on an emotional roller coaster. But now that he's back, she sees its positive effects. "I learned a lot about myself, I learned the strength inside of me," said Nicole Ashford, 24. "I could do a lot more on my own than I thought I could."

That her husband returned in time for her favorite holiday puts a cap on the year. She has a big, close family that gathers for the holidays, and she enjoys decorating the house — to the point that she put up the tree last year before Thanksgiving, conceding that was jumping the gun a bit. Now, with her husband home, the holiday is complete.

"I'm happy as I can be," Nicole Ashford, 24, said. "He keeps trying to get me stuff for Christmas. I don't need anything."

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