Pfc. Jeffrey Girton gives a little hug to his girlfriend, Lacey McCollister, Wednesday after discussing his tour of duty in Iraq. Girton arrived home Tuesday night after a year in the Mideastern country.
By LINDA MESSMER
There were smiles, hugs, cheers and tears of joy from the dozen family members Tuesday night at Indianapolis International Airport when their soldier stepped off the plane. After 12 months in Iraq, Pfc. Jeffrey Girton was home.
It had been a long year for the Brazil native with the U.S. Army, 7-159 Aviation Regiment, Alpha Company. The 20-year-old son of Michelle Ellis and Mike Girton joined the Army soon after graduating from Northview High School in 2002.
He was trained to repair helicopters working mostly with the Long Bow Apache.
The day after his homecoming, girlfriend, Lacey McCollister, sat close by, quietly, just looking at him as if she was not sure if what she saw was real or imagined. Girton talked about the year that he'd spent in Iraq.
"All Army helicopters are named after Indian tribes," volunteered the lean, dark haired man with a captivating, boyish grin.
When troops were first in Iraq, helicopters provided air support for infantry divisions Girton explained. His job was to keep the air craft running safely. His unit was stationed at Balad Air Field inside Balad Iraq, about an hour south of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown.
Girton talked about the Iraqi environment, its people and what it was like to be an American soldier there.
"It was hot!" Girton said. "The temperature sometimes reached 140 plus degrees with an average of 110. At night it got down to almost 80. The shade was a good 15 to 25 degrees cooler. It's very dry, but not comfortable. I'd say it was about like a humid 90 degree day in Indiana. It was especially hot working inside an aircraft."
Girton said a lot of the Iraqi people near the base were happy the Americans were there.
"We were able to provide a few jobs for them," he explained. "But a few didn't like us. They lobed mortars at us."
Girton said that before Saddam was caught, his base was mortared three to four times a week. For two days following Saddam's capture the mortar fire was almost constant. Then it slowed down and nearly stopped.
"My company did not have any casualties," Girton said. But we had two purple hearts from injuries."
After Hussein was caught the Iraqis coming on the Air Base were very happy.
"They yelled, 'Saddam gone! Saddam Donkey! Thank you!' They were like that for a week or two then things went back to normal."
Girton was asked if he ever felt that his life was in imminent danger.
"A couple times," he said. "One time I was up in the tower doing guard duty. An RPG (rocket propelled grenade) passed me about five meters off to my right. It went past and exploded harmlessly in an old bunker behind me.
"It was over before I realized what had happened. I thought, Wow! That could have been serious. Then I was glad I was a mechanic. That means I'm not always out there."
Girton said the spirit and mood of the troops were high until about June. Then the daily routine began taking a toll. It was just get up, work, eat, sleep. Hot. Every day. Nothing changed. And it seemed like it would be that way for years.
Spirits improved in December for some soldiers due to the holiday season. But Christmas time was depressing for others.
Alpha Company got orders in January and were told they'd be moving from Balad soon but they weren't told where they'd go. Then in early February they found out they were going home.
"Everybody was ecstatic then," Girton said. "We had a big barbecue and cooked a camel. It tasted like moose."
Girton was asked how the separation from family and friends affected him and how he felt about America's involvement in the war.
"It was very trying. I missed my family and girlfriend so much. I just had an emptiness there. I so wanted to be with Lacy but couldn't. It was a very unpleasant feeling.
Girton gave considerable thought about America's involvement in the war before he spoke.
"At first, like a lot of people, I thought it was nothing more than our conquest for oil. But after being there and seeing the faces of the people, the little kids and seeing the hope in their faces, my views changed. For the most part I think the Iraqis are glad we're there. I think it's good we're there and really do feel like we're helping them.
"And I want to say thanks to the community and all the people who supported us. I received letters and packages from people I don't even know. They were thanking me for being there. To those people I'd like to say, You're welcome and thank you for supporting us. It really meant a lot."
Lacey hung on every word spoken by her soldier, who has 4 1/2 years yet to serve in the Army and will be going to Germany in a month. She hugged him then looked admiringly at him and said, "He's my hero. He doesn't have to wear tights or a cape. He's fine just the way he is."