MetroWest Daily News - After Tour in Iraq, Area Troops Welcomed Home
By Danielle Ameden/Daily News staff
Framingham firefighter Michael Burnes returned from Baghdad in May with a prized Bronze Star, but what gives the Army National Guard staff sergeant and his fellow troops the most pride?
Two words, Burnes says: "Mission accomplished."
U.S. Sen. John Kerry, Worcester Mayor Konstantina Lukes and top Army brass yesterday praised what they called a job well-done by Burnes and 300 other soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 181st Infantry regiment.
The warriors, including the Hudson-based Delta unit and companies from Worcester and Cambridge, returned home after nine months of security work, combat and support of soldiers fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Honoring the troops in a ceremony yesterday at the DCU Center, Kerry reflected on his own homecoming from the Vietnam War in 1969, a time when the country was so bitterly divided over the war that veterans weren't respected.
"People took off their uniforms, nobody bought you a drink. Nobody said thank you," said Kerry.
The senator touted the new G.I. Bill and small business incentives for veterans, and recognized that lawmakers and Americans can support their soldiers without supporting a war.
"How proud we are - I mean that - of the quality of your service and the contributions you are making," Kerry said.
Brig. Gen. Thomas Sellars, commander of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, praised each soldier for facing the enemy and fulfilling a mission with more responsibility than ever before demanded, serving as a "policeman, peacekeeper, humanitarian, caregiver and caretaker of the world's oppressed."
Sellars noted how difficult the job is when soldiers have family back home.
"You still place duty and honor above all else," Sellars said.
"You should feel very proud," said Col. John Conley, commander of the Guard's 51st troop. "You deployed as a team and you returned as a team."
Lt. Colonel George Harrington, commander of the 181st regiment, praised the soldiers for their "flawless" execution of their tasks.
"For almost four centuries, soldiers of this regiment have answered the nation's call to duty," Harrington said. "Thank you to all of you, and keep your powder dry."
Delta unit soldiers said their work went relatively smoothly, save for the indirect fire blasted at them at the end of their tour, when mortar rockets fired from Sadr City had them diving into concrete bunkers for cover.
"It was the absolute scariest thing ever because you don't know where it's coming from, and you don't know when it's going to hit," said Sgt. 1st Class Kimberly Alberico of North Easton.
"It was crazy - I ain't going to lie to you, it was nuts," Burnes said.
The troops found shrapnel that landed in their camp.
Despite the scares, the troops safely accomplished their mission, working personal security detail to protect dignitaries, including U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and the U.N.'s special representative to the secretary general, escorting them to meetings in some dangerous areas.
"It's a very important job," said Burnes.
Other people who visited Baghdad included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney, actress Angelina Jolie, Sen. John McCain, political advisers and officials with the World Health Organization, the soldiers said.
Alberico said she was proud this was the first time females were integrated within the infantry line company, with about 15 women serving alongside 175 men.
"That's a big deal now that I look back - it's a big honor," Alberico said, showing off the unit's Yankee Division patch she wore on her camouflage combat uniform, right underneath an American flag patch.
Sgt. Dustin Bonina of Milford served his first mission, proud to fight for his country after enlisting just after Sept. 11, 2001.
"Somebody's got to do it," he said.
Burnes, who lives in Northborough, received the Bronze Star, plus a combat infantry badge and two army achievement medals.
The Delta unit itself received many accolades, including the Iraqi Campaign Medal.
"We did an outstanding job and we put over 2,654,000 miles on travel on the Humvees," Alberico said.
While away from home, the troops leaned on each other for support, Bonina said.
"The men become your families," the sergeant said.
"Now," added 1st Lt. Brian Gundersen of South Boston, "you can lean on your family and friends."