Soldiers from the 345th Military Intelligence Battlion arrive 3 hours early for homecoming

Spc. James Loftis gives a hug to his dad, Charles Stansel, as his mother, Jennifer Stansel, stands nearby after soldiers from the 345th Military Intelligence Battalion returned to Fort Gordon.

Getting home after a year in Baghdad couldn’t come soon enough for a group of soldiers Wednesday afternoon.

 

The 40 to 45 servicemen and servicewomen arrived at Fort Gordon nearly three hours ahead of schedule after they told their bus driver not to stop for anything that wasn’t necessary, including lunch.

Vera Watkins, of Sparta, Ga., said it was a challenge getting to the homecoming on time after her youngest daughter, a returning soldier, called to say they were ahead of schedule.

“I promise I didn’t speed,” she said with a laugh, her face still damp with tears at the afternoon homecoming program.

Virniqua Watkins said she had no words for her return home. Instead, she reared back and yelled “Wooo-hooo.”

The specialist with the 345th Military Intelligence Battalion said that during her first deployment she missed her family more than anything, especially her 2-year-old who is in Florida. She said she was counting the days when she could join the toddler.

Bobbie Smith, of Augusta, said everyone who worked with her at Doctors Hospital knew that her youngest son was to return at 5 p.m., but when he called to let her know he was home early, she didn’t take the time to share the joy.

“I don’t think anyone knows I’ve left yet,” she said.

Her son, Spc. Howard Jones, said he hasn’t slept since leaving Baghdad.

“The feeling is unexplainable,” Jones said of his return to his hometown. “You can’t quite explain the feeling but you know it’s good.”

Smith said her family had already planned a big get-together Sunday in honor of her son’s return. His 97-year-old great-great-grandmother was especially excited to welcome him home.

Spc. Cody Beggs, of Lincoln County, sat patiently at Fort Gordon while his mother finished her clinicals at Doctors Hospital. Beggs was the last soldier waiting, still more than an hour before the soldiers were originally due to arrive.

“I thought it would go by slow, but it went by so fast,” Beggs said of his first deployment.

While sitting on the lawn, he gazed at the sky and grass around him and described the feeling as “surreal.” After a year away, he had gotten accustomed to not seeing the colors in nature he had grown up with.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to ’this normal,’ ” he said.

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