Tyrone Thurton was in awe. After a yearlong deployment in Iraq, the guardsman and first-time dad arrived in Los Alamitos early Thursday morning to meet his 8-month-old son Damina for the first time.
“I’ve just seen him on Skype. He’s a lot bigger and heavier than I was expecting,” said Thurton.
As his parents watched with tears in their eyes, Thurton ran his fingers through his son’s curls, kissed him and blew bubbles on the baby’s belly, trying to catch up in a minute every thing he missed over the last year.
“I am just going to chill with my boy, spoil him a little and take him shopping,” said Thurton, a Rancho Cucamonga resident.
Thurton was among 250 soldiers from California National Guard's 640th Aviation Support Battalion to return home from Iraq on two planes flying into the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training base before dawn this morning.
With jackets and gloves and homemade signs, families lined up on the runway waiting in the dark for their loved ones. The return of the 640th Aviation Support Battalion is the single largest homecoming of California National Guard Troops since last month when President Obama announced the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq before the year's end.
Specialist Debora Martinez of Lakewood is just glad to be home in time to cook Thanksgiving dinner for her family.
“I am going to make my stuffing, and my daughter is going to bake cookies, and my son said he is going to be the taste-tester. It’s nice just to be home again and have normal, everyday life,” said Martinez, who has a 14-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter.
Being gone for a year wasn’t easy, said Martinez.
“At first, my kids would say, ‘Mom, it’s just like you always tell us: Take it one day at a time, and you’ll be home soon enough,’ But at the end, they kept saying, ‘Mom, you’ve been gone long enough,’ ”Martinez said. “I am just so happy to be home safe. All of us went together and we all came home safe together.”
For Michele Fuentes of Sun Valley, the homecoming was all about family, namely her two-year-old daughter Laylahi.
Wrapped in a pink blanket, Laylahi played peek-a-boo with her mom and giggled with delight every time Fuentes went in for a kiss.
“I didn’t realize how big you’ve gotten,” Fuentes told her.
“They didn’t tell us until three days ago that we’d be coming home today, so there was a lot of suspense,” said Fuentes. “I’ve been up for 24 hours, and I plan to sleep and spend time with my family.”
Sgt. Major Bryon Robinson of Phelan has plans to spend the weekend watching movies with his son, 12, and daughter, 14.
“It’s been very challenging with two kids and juggling everything without him,” said Robinson’s wife Elle. “We’re glad to have him back.”
“It was hard because he used to help me with all my schoolwork, and I’ve had to do it by myself,” said 14-year-old Amber. “Now he can help me again.”
“But the first thing I am going to do is sleep,” said Robinson.
The soldiers left 130-degree heat in Iraq and many had spent the last 24 hours on a plane.
Like the soldiers, Candy Garcia of Rancho Cucamonga hasn’t had much sleep over the last day. Her 20-year-old son Luis Garcia had a long wish list of home cooked meals for his first day back, she said.
“He wanted pozole, and carne asada, and homemade salsa, and flan,” she said. “I am happy to make it for him. He is one of my youngest, and it was hard for me. I am so glad he is home.”