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First reported 9/2/2010 6:42 p.m.

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Months had passed since 12-year-old Marissa Jenkins last saw her dad, a captain in the U.S. Army. So when Aaron Jenkins climbed down the escalator at O’Hare airport last Thursday – back from his one-year deployment in Iraq – Marissa jumped into his arms, never wanting to let go.

 “It’s really exciting just to know that he is home and that we can give him hugs,” she said.

 On Sept. 2, Forest Park welcomed home the first group of American soldiers to return to the Chicago area from Iraq since President Barack Obama declared an end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq a little more than a week ago.

After traveling through eight airports from Baghdad to Chicago, 25 soldiers from the 318th Public Affairs Operation Army Reserve Unit – which is based in Forest Park – reunited with friends and family during a grand homecoming celebration hosted by the village.

The countdown begins

The morning began in a downpour from the gray, cloudy sky. But the mood was anything but gloomy for the two busloads of people who anxiously gathered near baggage claim at O’Hare to see their loved ones, who served as media liaisons in Baghdad for about a year.  

While waiting for his dad’s arrival, 3-year-old Christian Garcia told the Review as he chomped on bubble gum, “Daddy’s not punching the bad guys in the face any more.”

“Christian is so proud of his daddy,” said the boy’s mother, Maggie Garcia. “He’ll randomly talk to people in the grocery store and say, ‘My daddy’s coming home from Iraq!'”

The troops landed at O’Hare around 1 p.m. and were met by loud cheers as they stepped out of the gate. As they made their way down the hall, the crowd gave a standing ovation.

“When we landed, I wanted to kiss the ground,” said 43-year-old Aaron Jenkins. “I don’t think I really had time to think. There were people lined up from the moment that we got off that airplane, all the way down to the luggage rack, just clapping for us. It was amazing, like something you see on TV.”

Together again

It was a heartfelt scene when the soldiers finally saw their friends and family. Many were brought to tears, describing the moment as “emotional” and “awesome,” if they could speak at all.

Lizbeth Medina, for one, was thrilled to see that her 25-year-old sister, Ruth Medina, returned safely.

“She was the very first one coming down the stairs holding the flag, and I was just so happy to see her happy,” Lizbeth Medina, 32, said. “We’ve been waiting to see her again, waiting to make sure she comes back safe. Every time you see something in the news, you think, is she OK? Is she fine? Is she going to come back healthy? You don’t know if you’re going to be able to talk to her again.”

Rally time

The troops and their families then rode in police-escorted buses through nine different towns from the airport to Forest Park in a procession that stopped traffic and saw people on the streets waving, saluting and whistling in their honor.

Gov. Pat Quinn joined the parade outside the reserve center on Roosevelt Road before the motorcade made its way to Madison Street, where local business people waved from the sidewalk.

A field of school children donning the flag’s colors welcomed the troops at the site of the rally in the Park.

Brigadier Gen. Joe Chesnut was one to address the crowd.

“A lot of combat soldiers are out there fighting real hard…but unless you get the right information out, unless you send out the right message…you are never going to win the war. And that’s what this small and powerful group was doing,” Chesnut said.

 “It’s because of these key, skill-rich citizen soldiers that we were able to bring this thing to a conclusion, and I’d like to thank them again,” he said.

Press camp

While in Baghdad, the soldiers checked credentials and awarded press badges to hundreds of reporters from around the world, including Europe, New Zealand, Korea, Japan, Iraq and the United States.

 The troops also assigned journalists to a unit and helped coordinate transportation, housing and food “so that they could go and tell their stories,” Ruth Medina said.

 Deborah Hartman, who has lived in Forest Park and works at the reserve center in town, said she would first scan the reporter’s iris with a special camera as part of the screening process. She would then take 14 fingerprints and eight different photos.

 The 53-year-old, who is only a few years shy of becoming the longest-serving woman in the military, returned to the U.S. a couple weeks before the rest of the group after her father, mother and sister died within weeks of each other while she was away.

 Even still, Hartman said her experience in Iraq was “awesome,” and that she would “definitely do it again.”

Expressing gratitude

Back at the rally, Aaron Jenkins spoke for the soldiers.

“I’d go to war with any one of these soldiers because I know that they have my back, and I have their back. And we have your backs,” he told the crowd.

 After all of the speeches, the soldiers enjoyed a private lunch with one another and their families inside the Park District building.

There, Mayor Anthony Calderone, who organized the event along with the Park District and Frank Amaro of the Italian American War Veterans, told the Review, “I feel proud to be an American.”

The soldiers “were very heart warmed and never expected this kind of a homecoming,” he said. “So I think we took them by surprise and showed them a good old fashioned Forest Park welcome home.”

Photos by KATIE DREWS/Staff 


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