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Marines back after tragic deployment
The Harrier squadron that lost its commanding officer and the aviation support unit that lost one of its fellow Marines in an insurgent attack on their base during a six-month deployment to Afghanistan both returned to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma Thursday afternoon to a tearful, hug-filled reunion with friends and family.
Approximately 88 members of Marine Attack Squadron 211 and Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13 were greeted by relatives, loved ones and fellow Marines who had returned in late September, when they arrived outside the squadron's hangar.
Among them was Katie Kottke, who was there to meet her boyfriend Sgt. Samuel Gerth, of Marine Attack Squadron 211.
“I've pretty much been counting down the days since he left,” Kottke said. “I'm nervous, shaking, very excited, going through so many emotions.”
Gerth's mother Donna was also there. She travelled to Yuma all the way from Indiana to attend the homecoming so she could keep a promise she had made to her son.
“I'm just so happy to have him home. They had a really rough time over there,” said Donna, who broke down in tears the moment she saw her son. “I told him if he ever went overseas that I would be there to meet him when he got home.”
Sgt. Samuel Garth, who was carrying a guitar he had found in Khandahar, said he was just happy to be back home.
“I'm going to enjoy not doing anything for a while,” he said.
Despite all the happy reunions, there was also a sense of sadness. While deployed, the squadron was touched by tragedy when Lt. Col. Christopher “Otis” Raible, VMA-211's commanding officer, and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, a Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13 electronics technician, were killed in an insurgent attack on Camp Bastion on Sept. 14.
“As happy as I am to have my son back home safe, we have to keep in mind that not everyone made it back,” Donna Gerth said.
During the attack, several other Marines were wounded. Six Harrier jets were also destroyed and two others were badly damaged. VMA-211 was the only Marine Corps Harrier squadron in Afghanistan at the time.
Lance Cpl. Matthew Tracy had a surprise waiting for him upon his return. While he knew his mom Doris Tracy was going to be there when he got back, he had no idea his father, Tom Tracy, would be there as well.
“I'm really excited. Having my parents here is awesome,” said Lance Cpl. Matthew Tracy. “I haven't seen my family in about six months and some change. Being reunited with them is a lot different from talking to them over the phone.”
As with previous returns from deployment, the Marines stood in formation outside the hangar as its doors slowly slid opened, revealing them to those who were waiting anxiously inside.
“I'm crying one minute and laughing the next,” Doris said after hugging her son, who was just 10 years old when the war started. “I'm just so overwhelmed right now.”
The Tracy's explained that they are from Ocean County, New Jersey, the area hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy. They said they wanted to make sure at least one of them would be here for their son's homecoming and that Doris was able to catch one of the last flights out before the airport shut down.
As it turned out, Tom Tracy said he was able to get on one of the first flights after the airport reopened and got into Yuma at about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday night.
“The only flight I could catch was to Los Angeles,” Tom Tracy said. “From there I took a commuter flight here. But I made it.”
This homecoming, as the last few others have, was broadcast over a live video feed so family members who weren't able to attend would be able to log on and watch as it was happening.
“It's a great way to connect those who couldn't be here with the moment,” said Marine Corps Air Station spokeswoman Capt. Staci Reidinger.
A video recording of the event was also made so the homecoming could be watched later.
While deployed, VMA-211 and MALS-13 Marines supported U.S. and International Security Assistance Force aerial and ground combat operations across Afghanistan as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
James Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6854. Find him on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/YSJamesGilbert or on Twitter at @YSJamesGilbert.