BANGOR, Maine — The family of Spc. Nick Emery of Whitefield used the time just before his Maine Army National Guard unit arrived home Friday afternoon from a yearlong deployment in Kuwait to modify yellow T-shirts that read, “Welcome home Joe.”
They used magic markers to cross out the name Joe and write in Nick.
“When Joe was deployed we had the shirts made and now we’re reusing them for Nick,” said Mike Emery, referring to his sons, who both serve in the 126th Aviation Medevac unit. Warrant Officer Joe Emery stayed home this deployment, but was on hand to greet his younger brother.
“The shirts have been through three deployments,” Nick’s mother, Jeannine Emery, said.
Nick and Joe’s grandparents also wore the altered yellow T-shirts at the homecoming that included hundreds of the unit’s family members and friends.
The 126th left Maine nearly a year ago to serve in Kuwait, and arrived back on U.S. soil last week. The 82 citizen soldiers landed at Bangor International Airport and their plane taxied over to the Army Aviation Support Facility where their friends and family members waited with welcome home signs and messages of love.
The parents of Pilot Meaghan Falone, of Hudson, who also deployed with the unit to Iraq in 2008, said their daughter reached a milestone with her service.
“She’s the first full-time female pilot for the state,” Doug Lombard of Caribou said. “She started full time a year ago in October. She’s also an instructor pilot. I’m awful proud of her.”
Her mother, Pat Lombard, said her daughter doesn’t really talk about her missions.
“We don’t need to know,” she said. “She was doing her job and she loved it.”
While deployed, the unit was assigned to conduct aerial medical evacuation for Kuwait — taking over for the U.S. Navy — and flew more than 1,200 missions, including 43 emergency medical evacuations that involved airlifting injured soldiers and civilians using Black Hawk helicopters, Maj. Michael Steinbuchel said.
“They took over for the Navy and she got to fly with them during the switchover and she said, ‘Aww man, the Black Hawk helicopters are incredible,’” Falone’s dad, who is a former Army recruiter, recalled.
“Our family has 53 years of military service altogether,” said Pat Lombard. “We’re a National Guard family — that is for sure.”
Maj. Mark Stevens, a 1987 Kennebunk High School graduate, was the unit’s commander in Kuwait and dismissed them after they marched into a hangar where those left behind waited with cameras ready.
“While working with U.S. and Kuwaiti naval forces, many of the crews achieved certifications necessary to conduct deck landings for ships under way,” Steinbuchel said in a press release.
“Unit members have been recommended for five Meritorious Service Medals, nearly 60 Air Medals, 10 Army Commendation Medals and five Army Achievement Medals.
The 126th, which partnered with the Oregon-based 158th Aviation Medevac unit during the deployment, was attached to the 35th Combat Aviation Brigade while serving at Camp Buehring, Kuwait.
The unit returned home without Staff Sgt. Jessica Wing of Glenburn, a 23-year veteran helicopter mechanic who died in Kuwait in a noncombat-related incident on Aug. 27, 2012. The cause of her death has not been released.
Gov. Paul LePage was at the homecoming, a longtime military tradition, and entered the hangar just before the men and women in uniform.
“You have some of the most difficult work to do and you have sacrificed so much for your state and nation,” the governor told the troops just before they stepped into the public eye, according to a press release. “Maine is proud of all of you. I am proud of all of you. Your service is greatly appreciated and we are happy to have you home.”
A Freedom Salute is planned for a month or so down the road, in which the governor and other state leaders and lawmakers are given a chance to publicly thank the soldiers.
“The unit served with distinction throughout the deployment,” Steinbuchel said.
The 9-month-old son of Spc. Philip Higgins II, a crew chief for the 126th, practiced his walking before his dad arrived with help from his mom, Melissa Higgins, and grandfather, Philip Higgins. The toddler, sporting a small grey T-shirt with a 126th logo, could be seen taking little steps toward his dad’s outstretched arms after he arrived.
Falone said she is looking forward to “spending time with my family.”
After Nick Emery hugged his mom, dad, brother, grandparents and got a bear hug from a friend in uniform, he said the group was heading to Geaghan’s Pub.
“It feels great [to be home],” the 23-year-old specialist, who worked on the electronics of the Black Hawks, said, with his brother in uniform standing beside him. “It feels cold. It feels surreal. It’s definitely a rush.”
His grandmother, Pat Truman of Hallowell, pursed her lips after getting a hug and then tears slowly made their way down her face.
“I said I wouldn’t cry this time — that’s a joke,” she said, wiping away the happy tears.