February 02, 2006

Delaware Army Natl. Guard's 280th Signal Battalion Comes Home!

'Tears of joy' as troops return.

The News Journal
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DOVER -- The cheering, stomping, hooting and hand clapping started when the first members of the Army National Guard's 280th Signal Battalion marched into the hotel ballroom.

It didn't stop until 90 minutes later as more than 1,400 people jammed into the Dover Downs Hotel & Conference Center to welcome back the two Delaware companies of the 280th that have just returned from duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.

Members of the 280th received a total of 55 medals in recognition of their service in Southwest Asia, including 15 Bronze Stars.

"We're not heroes," said Capt. Tim Drake of Lewes, who commanded A Company. "We just did our jobs."

But not everyone agreed with his assessment Wednesday afternoon. Among those who disagreed was Maj. Gen. Frank Vavala, adjutant general of the Delaware National Guard. He called the returning 65 troops heroes and then paid tribute to their families by calling them heroes as well.

"The soldiers of the 280th served on the front lines in the war on terrorism. When a mission developed, they weren't told to go, they volunteered. They answered the call willingly and without hesitation," Vavala said.

Soldiers from the two companies spent their tours flying from one hot spot to another, working long hours to make certain troops could talk to one another under fire.

When they weren't doing that, Delaware Guard spokesman Maj. Len Gratteri said, they worked with civilian contractors to install telephone and data networks in Iraq.

The 280th was originally scheduled to come home around Thanksgiving, but changes in its mission and the Iraqi elections forced it to remain in Southwest Asia.

That fact helped make Wednesday's welcome-home ceremony that much sweeter for the troops and their families.

"I'm crying because my godson came home today," said Maggie Dobrznski of Hockessin as she and other family members surrounded 1st Lt. Gaetano Gravino. "These really are tears of joy."

There are about 150 troops from the Delaware Army and Air National Guard still deployed in the war on terrorism, Gratteri said.

Dover Downs donated the space for Wednesday's event.

The ceremony was a combination pep rally -- complete with red, white and blue pom-poms -- and revival meeting.

Shouts of "amen" ricocheted off the ballroom's walls and ceiling during speeches by military and political leaders. Even the invocation ended with a shouted "amen."

"I thank God for the safe trip and for being the keeper of my soul," 1st Sgt. Henry Fields of Bridgeville said as soldiers and their families and friends mingled after the speeches ended.

"I think many soldiers are very spiritual. I think to constantly put yourself at risk, you almost have to believe in a higher power, in God," said Andrea Ignozzi of Wilmington, who was welcoming home a friend. "I think that just naturally carries over to the rest of us."

Posted by Kyer at February 2, 2006 10:49 PM | TrackBack