OCEANSIDE, Calif.—Echo Company marched up one last arid road this Friday morning, a gently curved swath to a Southern California Marine base that marked the final 100 yards of a long, brutal voyage.
Seven months and 22 deaths after they shipped out, the Marines kept formation in the face of something that might make even the most disciplined warrior break ranks: a parking lot full of weepy moms and almost weepy dads, wives, scantily dressed girlfriends and beer-toting brothers, decorated family dogs and still-unseen newborns, their signs, banners, balloons and windshield decals all welcoming their boys home from Iraq.
It had been a morning of false alarms. Rumors spread that the company was 15 minutes away, only to dissipate as the day ticked on. The members of another Marine company arrived, embraced their families and melted happily away into the safe hills of Camp Pendleton.
The Echo families waited.
Mike Stanley from Snyder, Texas, vowed to keep it together when he welcomed home his son Robert. Eddie Waechter from outside Dallas toted a banner that cheered on his son Marcus, who survived an ambush that killed half his squad. Lana Adams, whose son Cody returned three weeks ago, came to welcome home his comrades, whose parents she befriended online as Echo Company endured one of the deadliest tours of duty any American unit has faced in Iraq.
The company's darkest days in early April were chronicled for Knight Ridder by Philadelphia Inquirer photographer David Swanson, who was embedded with the company in Ramadi, a hotbed of Iraq's Sunni Muslim insurgency.
"It just makes you want to cry to see them," said Doug Jones, on hand to welcome home his son Chris. "Two of my son's best friends were killed."
When the company was dismissed a little after 9 a.m. with a salute and a whooping cheer, the waterworks opened up on both sides.
"I'm just so happy he's home," said Noemy Bernardino, 19, of San Diego, alternately kissing her husband, Jose, and posing for pictures for friends. "I'm so glad he's safe. Just so glad. It's been hell these last seven months."
"I can't believe it," stammered Lance Cpl. Jose Bernardino.
That about summed it up. For the roughly 150 men who returned home on Friday, figuring out what it meant to be fighting in Iraq and what it would mean to be home in America could wait for another day.
"Relief," said Lance Cpl. Robert Stanley of his return. "It just feels good."
Tiffany Hicks, from Sunnyvale, Calif., was one of the most mobbed family members on hand to welcome Echo Company. Her brother, Travis Layfield, was killed on April 6 in Ramadi. In her anger and her grief, Hicks said, she'd turned against her church and questioned the government that put her brother in harm's way for reasons she doesn't always understand.
"My son just said to the little friend he made, `We don't have anyone to hug because my uncle's never coming home,'" Hicks said. "It just made me cry."
But she said she'd grown close to her brother's old comrades and their families in the months since Echo Company was hit by the ambush that killed her brother. She made the seven-hour trip to welcome them out of the same feeling of relief.
"I want to hug all of them if I can. I want to say thank you. They're serving their country. I tell them, you've got a sister now," Hicks said. "I'm just so glad for them."
All morning, the newly returned men approached Hicks, stopping to huddle with her even as they exulted with their families. "I've learned a lot about what happened," she said late in the morning, as the crowd thinned out. "I'm glad I came."
Some Marines tapped a keg of beer and others lit cigars, but Echo Company's losses were never far away. Layfield was remembered on T-shirts and in an airbrushed likeness on the tailgate of his sister's pick-up truck. Kyle Crowley was among those commemorated on posters. Marcus Cherry's loved ones remembered him with buttons.
The walking wounded came home, too. Cpl. Nathan Appel lost a pinkie. Lt. Ben Kaler had parts of his arm blown off by an improvised explosive device.
But the cycle of life also took center stage. Lt. Chris Kalafitis was greeted by a 2-week-old baby he'd never seen. Lt. Tommy Cogan of Northeast Philadelphia hustled away with a friend, speeding to the San Diego hospital where his wife had just given birth to a baby girl.
Appel, who came home in April, said his comrades will have much to get used to as they readjust.
"One day you're getting shot at, the next day you're walking down the street," he said. "It's like a Star Trek movie."
Not noted by the Marines, but much discussed by their parents, was the fact that Echo Company came home to a different country than the one they left. The two men vying to serve as their next commander-in-chief are duking it out over what they did or failed to do during another foreign entanglement three decades ago.
"There's a sort of reality missing" from the debate, said Eddie Waechter. But his son, Marcus, said the members of the company weren't thinking much about politics.
Despite whoever wins the election, the Marines of Echo Company could find themselves back in Iraq some day. For now, they'll be at Camp Pendleton for about two more weeks, readjusting to life in the States. Then they'll have a month of well-earned leave.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Echo+Company