Harford GI returns from fighting in desert to fanfare on front lawn


JARRETTSVILLE -- When Mike Sjolander's mother insisted that he wear his camouflage fatigues yesterday morning, he though it was for a family portrait. He found out the truth when he opened his front door.

The 19-year-old GI's expression ran the gamut from stunned surprise to sheer delight as he was greeted by his old North Harford High School Band and a lawn full of smiling faces welcoming him home from the Persian Gulf war.

Specialist Sjolander, who came home on emergency leave last week because his father is ill, was treated to the surprise by his aunt, Janet Fondnazio, who arranged it all from her

home in Bellevue, Wash.

"I don't have a speech prepared," said Specialist Sjolander, a mobile artillery spotter in the 3rd Armored Division who fought in an all-night battle against Iraq's Republican Guard. "I feel good to be home. I didn't expect this, especially the band."

The soldier snapped off a brisk salute as the 70-member, green-and-gold-uniformed band broke into the Star-Spangled Banner and the color guard's Maryland flag dipped to leave the Stars and Stripes crackling in the cutting wind.

"Actually, I expected a band at Dover [Air Force Base in Delaware] but there wasn't one. You sound pretty good," quipped the young soldier, who claims to have introduced lacrosse to the Persian Gulf.

VonZell Ward, assistant secretary of state, gave him a Maryland flag that flew over the State House, and George Harrison, an aide to Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrmann, delivered a certificate of appreciation for his service.

Kara Lipski, one of Mike's golfing buddies from the Hillendale Country Club, brought him a welcome home T-shirt. "I haven't seen him in two years," she said.

Before the festivities, Specialist Sjolander talked a bit about the fighting and even modeled his gas mask with its hood -- emphasizing how grateful he was that he never had to use it in combat.

His unit, the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Armored Division, was sent to Saudi Arabia from its base near Frankfurt, Germany, in late December. As part of their training, he said, the troops practiced in their chemical warfare suits and even had to sleep in them.

He had been prepared for a long conflict and was surprised that the Iraqi forces collapsed so quickly.

"My NCO woke us up and said a cease-fire was called. I was so relieved when it ended, knowing I was going to live," Specialist Sjolander said.

He had more fun recounting how he introduced lacrosse to the Persian Gulf.

An attackman at Calvert Hall and North Harford, where he graduated in 1989, Specialist Sjolander said he took his stick with him and amused himself while off duty by bouncing a ball off his spotting team's modified armored personnel carrier.

"Most of my buddies were from the West and hadn't heard of it," he said. "They looked at me like I was a weirdo with that stick. But I introduced lacrosse to Kuwait. If it came down to it, I was going to throw grenades with the stick." The lacrosse stick is now "somewhere in Spain" where his baggage -- including all his photographs of his war tour -- was misplaced during his trip home, Specialist Sjolander said.

Mrs. Fondnazio, his aunt, had arranged yesterday's special welcome because the soldier had to arrive home alone on emergency leave and would miss the fanfare that would greet units returning from Operation Desert Storm. Mrs. Fondnazio said

that when her nephew's mother, Josephine, called last week to say he was coming home, she realized that he would be arriving at Dover, the receiving point for war dead.

"I hoped he wouldn't be coming in on a plane with them," Mrs. Fondnazio said. "It really upset me that he would be coming home alone, away from his unit, and wouldn't get the hoopla we see on television for the people coming back.

"I decided that if Mike was not coming home to that, I would get it to him. It was something that had to be done. He's really special," said Mrs. Fondnazio, who has not seen her nephew and godson since Thanksgiving 1989. Starting last Wednesday, "I got on the telephone and I was making calls every day; the last one was yesterday morning," she said. Specialist Sjolander' sister, Kelly, 22,got leave from her job as a ski instructor in Vermont to see her ailing father and help with the welcome.

"Aunt Janet did it and then told us what she had done," Ms. Sjolander said. "This is the kind of thing she's always doing. She said, 'Make sure everyone's home on Tuesday.' "

Mrs. Fondnazio called North Harford High School, where Mike graduated in 1989, and asked to hire the school band. When she explained, school authorities agreed to produce the musicians. She called the offices of Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Harford Executive Rehrmann and won promises to have representatives on hand. "It was a little hard, but it all came together," Mrs. Fondnazio said.

Specialist Sjolander' father, Wilbur, who is recovering from cancer surgery and who is a Navy veteran of World War II, said the family encouraged his son to enter the service after high school because he hadn't settled on what to do next and he was still very young.

He said the Army -- and combat -- had changed his son from a boy to a man. "Yes, indeed," Mr. Sjolander said, "he's grown up now. You could tell it from his letters."

Then they took the family photo: Mike, his parents, sisters Kelly and Robin and brother Tom. Hugs, kisses, tears and laughs all around. The Sjolanders' hero was home, at least long enough to get the welcome he had earned.

Mike reports back to Frankfurt April 2 for reassignment. He doesn't know whether he will be sent back to the gulf.

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