By Douglas Moser
---- — METHUEN — Several families had gathered at the armory on Lowell Street, many of them strangers to each other, for some music, food and a little bit of somewhat nervous socializing.
The reason for the get together set everyone’s nerves tingling and charged the air.
About 55 members of the 181st Engineer Company of the Army National Guard returned home just before midnight Wednesday night from a roughly 10-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Families from as far away as Chicopee gathered at the armory for a homecoming party, coordinated by some local families for the return of a detachment of the company based in Methuen. The other part of the company is based in Bourne. Members said everyone returned home safe, with only a few minor injuries.
The company left from Cape Cod around Labor Day for a tour in Afghanistan, building and combining forward operating bases in remote parts of the country for use by coalition and Afghan soldiers. Communication to family back home was difficult.
“Communication was really shoddy,” said Terri Iovine of Methuen, whose son Lewis, 24, returned from his first foreign deployment. “My first phone call was at Thanksgiving, and I got another at Christmas. It was very isolated.”
Family members and friends got text message alerts from their loved ones, a play-by-play of their return stateside. The bus, scheduled to arrive around midnight Thursday morning, came in about 20 minutes early.
“All the soldiers came in and did a formation, and all the families erupted in cheers and screams,” said Colleen Oxley, who came from Chicopee with her four children to greet her husband, Brian. “They did a very quick line up and dismissed everybody to their families.”
After dismissal, the soldiers ran to their tearful reunions — and in some cases to introductions. Spc. Randy Hough met his 2-month-old son Randy, Jr. for the first time.
Spc. Robert Rockwood met his 8-month-old son Connor while smiling at his 3-year-old son Camden, both boys dressed in green camouflage tank tops.
“It’s been a long, long tour without my wife and kids,” said Sgt. Brian Oxley, 43, a 20-year Army man who returned from his third tour in the Middle East. “It never gets any easier. It’s exciting once you get there. But seeing the smile on my children’s faces when you get in, that’s the best part. And to see my lovely wife’s face. It’s always good to see that.”
Colleen Oxley, whose children are ages 9, 8, 5 and 3, said the kids saw daddy first and jumped up and down, calling out to him. “He’s supposed to be very serious, and he couldn’t help but grin ear to ear when he saw the kids,” she said.
The Oxleys left shortly after, stayed at a hotel in Andover and planned to drive home this afternoon.
Terri Iovine was chairperson of the family readiness group, which decorated the armory and coordinated the children’s entertainment and the food for the adults. Since this was her son’s first deployment, she did not know exactly what Wednesday night would be like.
“I was not prepared for the amount of emotion that was in that room. It was an incredible experience,” she said.
What was it like when Lewis walked in? “Oh,” she said, choking up even the next day. “I can’t even talk about it. It was so moving.”
Iovine said she met a number of the families since deployment in September, and while they do not know each other deeply, she described a bond that forms among the families of service members deployed overseas.
“You don’t really know people,” she said. “You see them on occasion to make sure everyone’s okay. But it’s still a big family because everyone loves somebody on that bus coming home.”
Douglas Moser may be contacted at email@example.com.