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'I'm Thankful'

(From the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram)

TREVOR MAXWELL Staff Writer November 20, 2007


Jarod Richard's journey to Thanksgiving began a year ago, behind the wheel of an Army truck on the outskirts of Baghdad. It began with his ears ringing from gunfire and the diesel roar of the convoys.

The journey began in the dust and 100-degree heat, with an Army National Guard unit that had lost two men to a bomb.

Richard spent last Thanksgiving in Iraq - a world apart from his fiancee in Auburn and his mother's house in Mexico, Maine, where his five siblings and their families gathered.

Richard called home, sent his love. Then he and his fellow soldiers went to the base cafeteria, which had been decorated in bright fall colors for a Thanksgiving meal.

They watched a football game on a big screen in the middle of the night.

''It was almost like (Thanksgiving) wasn't happening,'' said Richard, a sergeant with the Maine Army National Guard's Security Force 1. ''At the bottom of it, it still felt like just another day. At that point, I was really longing to be home with family and friends.''

Now, Richard is at home.

His journey has come full circle. He went into the war, put his life on the line, and returned with a greater sense of what's important in life.

''Having been over there last year, it makes every Thanksgiving following that much better,'' Richard said.

He and about 170 others in the security force returned to Maine in March and jumped back into the jobs and families they had left behind.

In June, Richard got married to Jennifer Thomas, to whom he had proposed a week before he deployed. They bought a house in Auburn and have been fixing it up.

On Friday, the couple sat on a couch at home, talking about the events of the past year.

''You hear stories about men going over there, and the relationship gets pulled apart,'' Jennifer Richard said. ''The opposite was true for us. I think the whole experience made us stronger.''

She is the director of development for United Way of Androscoggin County. Jarod Richard is a design engineer for W.H. Demmons in Portland, and he studies industrial technology full time at the University of Southern Maine. Most days he gets up at 5:30 a.m. for a full day of work and school.

On Wednesday, they will make the much-anticipated drive up to Mexico.

Their plan is to spend the night and celebrate Thanksgiving with the Richard family, before returning to Auburn on Thursday evening to be with Jennifer's family.

''Our family is very close,'' said Richard, who at 29 is the youngest of seven siblings. One sister died a few years ago. ''You can count on Thanksgiving and Christmas, everybody getting together and having a good time,'' he said.

Marjorie Richard put on a yellow-ribbon charm the day her son left Maine. She wore it for 420 days until his return.

''This is the big one,'' she said of Thanksgiving Day. ''This is the one (where) we are going to make up for the one we didn't have last year.''

Richard and his four older brothers pitched in a while back to build a 24-foot-by-24-foot addition to Marjorie Richard's house in Mexico. She wanted to have enough space for such gatherings.

''My kids and grand kids know that my happiest days are when the whole family is together,'' she said.

Marjorie Richard has always been a protective mother. Since Jarod's return, she has been concerned about the partial hearing loss that he suffered in Iraq, which he attributes to the noise of the trucks and occasional gunfire. And sometimes she worries about the ways the war affected him.

''He is not my same boy that went over there. He's got a little distant look in his eye,'' the mother said. ''He is here, but he is in another place, too.''

Jarod Richard said that if he has changed, it is for the better.

''Life seems to be a lot more colorful, with a lot more opportunity,'' he said. ''I had a positive experience. I learned to make friends in that environment, and some of them will be lifelong friends. If I think I'm having a bad day, I think about June in Baghdad.''

Security Force 1 was deployed in January 2006. Its job was to escort military convoys, clear travel routes and provide security for other units. As a driver, Richard was a security team chief, often leading 15 soldiers on night missions.

''It is pretty overwhelming when you first get over there,'' Richard said. ''You learn to trust everyone around you a lot more. You're trying to take care of each other.''

On May 6, 2006, a roadside bomb killed two members of the unit: Staff Sgt. Dale Kelly Jr., 48, of Richmond; and Staff Sgt. David Veverka, 25, a University of Maine senior from Jamestown, Pa.A third soldier, 19-year-old Christopher Fraser of Windsor, suffered serious injuries.

Although Richard did not know the men well, the deaths sent a shock wave through the entire security force. ''If you didn't know before that, you knew'' the reality of the situation then, he said. If anything good came of that, he said, ''it helped all of us focus on what we were doing.''

Through it all, Richard relied on phone calls, e-mails and packages from home. In the down time between missions, he and his friends watched movies, played flag football and slept as much as possible.

In March, the unit flew back to Fort Dix, N.J., and five days later boarded a bus for Bangor.

''Homecoming was a sweet day if there ever was a sweet day,'' Richard said.

So was June 30, the day of the wedding at the Bethel Inn.

Douglas Tomer of Brunswick, another member of Security Force 1, became close friends with Richard in Iraq. He was one of several unit members who attended the wedding.

''He's probably the only person that kept me sane over there,'' Tomer said. Being able to go to the wedding was important, he said, because ''it made me feel like all that stuff we did over there was worth it.''

Next September, Richard's six-year contract with the National Guard will be up. He plans to go into the Inactive Ready Reserve. Guard units are generally not redeployed within four years, so it is highly unlikely that Richard will go back to Iraq, but he is prepared for anything.

''You always know it's a possibility,'' he said, ''especially with the increased role played by the National Guard in this war. It's something that I have to be ready for. ''Right now, I'm thankful to be home.''

 

 

 

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