The Grand Rapids Press
SAGINAW -- Amid the flags, balloons and welcome-home signs, six names on a podium were a stark reminder of just how costly this deployment had been.
That might be why home never seemed so dear to soldiers such as Army Staff Sgt. Shawn Burch, of Hopkins.
"It feels good to be back. Real good," said Burch, 33, moments after he kissed his wife and children at a Monday homecoming rally for the Army National Guard's 125th Infantry at Delta College near Saginaw.
"It's been a long deployment."
Four of the names -- Pfc. John Dearing, Sgt. Joshua Youmans, Sgt. Matthew Webber and Sgt. Spencer Akers -- died as the result of a Nov. 21 roadside bomb attack on a convoy about 50 miles west of Baghdad.
The families of two slain 125th soldiers from the Grand Rapids area attended the homecoming. Cindy Brown's son, Spc. Timothy Brown, 23, of Cedar Springs, was killed by a mine in November. Karla Holwerda of Grand Rapids came to honor her fiancee, Spc. Dane Carver, 20, of Freeport, who was killed by a sniper the day after Christmas.
"It's bittersweet. We know our son would want us to be here to wish his war buddies home," said Brown, who wore her son's ID tags -- the ones he wore when he died Nov. 4, 2005.
Cindy Brown and other family members of the fallen soldiers received two standing ovations Monday and got thanks and hugs from other members of the unit.
The six combat deaths exceed those of any other Michigan Guard group in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Burch was at the company base, about a half-mile from the convoy, when the bomb exploded next to the soldiers' Humvee on Nov. 21. "We saw the smoke," Burch recalled.
Burch said the deaths hit the group hard, even though they could not afford to take their focus off their patrol and security missions in the dangerous Sunni Triangle region of Iraq.
"Pretty much everybody was depressed. We were down in the dumps. But we had to buck up and keep going," Burch said.
Several hundred friends and family members filed into the college gymnasium Monday to greet the 122 soldiers of Company B of the 125th and 11 soldiers from the Lansing-based 1st Battalion, 119th Field Artillery.
The troops also got a personal welcome from Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who said people in Michigan "were praying for you whether they know you or not."
"I want to thank you for fighting for us ... and for fighting to make this world a safer place," Granholm said.
For Karen Fitzgerald, 47, of Big Rapids, Monday was the day she finally could hold her son, Spc. James MacGregor, 22. Her son was in the convoy that was attacked in November, perhaps a few dozen feet away from where the bomb exploded, she said.
"That's too close," she said.
Fitzgerald was close to Webber, a 2001 graduate of Morley Stanwood High School, and hoped to visit him when he returned home. Webber died in April from severe burns he received in the attack.
Sgt. Damario Sanders of Grand Rapids said Monday it felt good to be home, but he still grieves for his fallen friends. "It's a hard feeling. They were like brothers," Sanders said.
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