It’s good to be home,” 21-year-old U.S. Army SPC Rita Taitano said, still trying to catch her breath amid an outpouring of welcome hugs, kisses, handshakes, cheers, and tears of joy at yesterday morning’s welcoming at the Saipan International Airport for 15 of 16 CNMI soldiers who had just returned from their Afghanistan deployment.
Like the 14 others who arrived yesterday, Taitano was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who welcomed them inside and outside the airport, as well as along the road to and from the airport.
It was especially heartwarming for SPC Christopher Del Rosario, seeing for the first time his 3-month-old daughter. His wife was pregnant with their second child when he was deployed.
“It’s kind of warming and trying to keep it together,” he said, holding his 2-yeard-old son at the airport.
Del Rosario also didn’t expect the welcoming “to be this big.” On hand were his parents Henry and Velma, along with his wife and other relatives and friends.
“Your soldiers are back home. Thank you for everything that you’ve done. Thank you soldiers for your service,” U.S. Army Maj. Joseph Cruz, executive officer of 1-294th Infantry Regiment, told an equally grateful crowd at the airport.
One of the 16 soldiers from the CNMI, U.S. Army 1LT Joey Togawa, an executive officer for C Company, remains at Camp Shelby in Mississippi for debriefing, his wife Colleen said.
“But I am here to show my support to the soldiers and their families. I am as excited. Just seeing the look on family members’ faces is priceless,” Colleen Togawa told Saipan Tribune.
The 16 soldiers from the CNMI were among the 600 members of the Guam National Guard’s 1-294th Infantry Regiment that were deployed to different parts of Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. It was the largest group of reserve component groups to be mobilized and deployed from the Marianas.
SPC Elbert Espayos, 21, said he was surprised by the big welcoming ceremony and thankful at seeing how the community supports its soldiers.
“We did a lot together. We accomplished a lot of missions and goals,” he said of his deployment to Afghanistan.
Espayos and his girlfriend, Midori Adelbai, are planning to go on vacation, which could be in Palau, and get married.
Gov. Eloy S. Inos, who led the welcoming at the airport, personally thanked the soldiers for their service to the country and to the families for their support. He said it was a “touching” moment to see families reunited.
The governor said he was relieved that the soldiers came home safe and sound after putting themselves in harm’s way in Afghanistan.
“We’re very happy. I’m sure the entire CNMI is happy for their coming home, that we as a community can do our part in defense of our country and the soldiers have been able to do something in defense of our country. We’re grateful for all of that,” the governor added.
Joining the governor at the welcoming rites were Cabinet members, lawmakers, other government officials, families, and relatives of the soldiers, the Manta Ray Band, and other private sector partners.
SPC Josh Ejercito, 21, said he was anxious to see his whole family after almost a year.
His father, 54-year-old Joey Ejercito, saw him for the first time in Guam on Monday night. The older Ejercito was wearing a welcome shirt with his son’s face on it, just as the family had planned, along with a “welcome home” banner prepared for the much-awaited occasion.
The young Ejercito said he will pursue a degree in criminal justice at the University of Guam and would like to become an officer after college.
“I’m trying to be a musician as well. I play three instruments—flute, saxophone and piccolo,” he said, adding that the welcoming was “overwhelming.”
SPC Dan Bicera also said “it’s good to be back.”
Unlike the other soldiers, however, Bicera’s immediate family was not there to greet him at the airport as they’re all now back in the Philippines.
Bicera said he will go back to work and pursue a degree in either criminal justice or human resources. He works at Rome Research Corp. as a security employee.
“The deployment was a new experience,” he added.
The father-and-daughter soldiers—SPC Ivan Igitol and SPC Britney Igitol—were also beaming as they were welcomed by families and friends. They said the welcoming was “awesome, tremendous and very overwhelming.”
“It feels great, [there’s] nothing like home. It’s been a long year, can’t wait to settle down and come back to real life,” the older Igitol said. “[It’s] a whole new experience back there. It’s totally out of this world,” he said of his deployment.
The younger Igitol said she had butterflies in the stomach, excited, and had mixed emotion when the plane landed on Saipan.
She said she and her father were planning to surprise their family. Little did they know that they will be the ones surprised when their family on Saipan flew to Guam to welcome them last week.
“I thought we were the ones who will surprise them but they surprised me so I started crying. It was a good thing,” she said.
She plans to go back to Northern Marianas College to pursue criminal justice.
Marie Salas-Igitol, the wife and daughter of the Igitol soldiers and lead person for the Family Readiness Group, said she and the rest of the family “turned the surprise around” when they traveled to Guam for the arrival last week.
“It was an exciting moment in Guam,” she said, adding that it was a “great feeling to have my husband, my daughter home.”
She said she’s also excited and overjoyed for the families who were seeing their soldiers for the first time after deployment.
The governor, meanwhile, said Salas-Igitol was helpful in uplifting the soldiers and their soldiers’ spirits throughout the deployment.
“It’s a very wonderful thing to have someone like Marie who can coordinate…She did a very wonderful job,” Inos added.
SPC Rita Taitano, holding a bouquet of flowers she got from her family, said she’s thankful for her family and community members for taking the time to welcome them home.
“I’m glad that they’re here. Everybody showed [up]. Some had to take off from school and work just to show up and now we’re going to go [for] barbecue,” she said. She also recognized Kagman Elementary School students and teachers for their welcome banner.
Taitano said she will go back to work at Shell Marianas under Jim Arenovski’s Delta Management, and later pursue her studies in Guam.
“I’m looking into [getting an] education [degree]. I love kids and my family is really big so helping them out little by little,” she added.
Taitano related that when she turned 21 in September in Afghanistan, she got 15 care packages, “one from every family member so it was something special.”
She said the ride from Guam to Saipan was “kind of bumpy and scary but it’s good to be home. I wasn’t expecting a big surprise, a lot of people. Thank you everybody for coming out. Ow! Thank you. I’m trying to catch my breath.”
Besides the Igitols, Del Rosario, Taitano, Bicera, Ejercito and Espayos, the other returning soldiers were SPC Ken Mojica, SPC Delorina Rabauliman, SPC Tiffany Santos, SPC Hainy Borja, SPC Andrew Delos Reyes, SPC Nathaniel Mateo, SPC Andrew Reyes, and SPC John Umbay.
David M. Sablan, Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve state chair for the Guam-CNMI Committee, said it’s a “great occasion” to welcome home the soldiers after their deployment to Afghanistan.
“And it’s also great to see the community’s support and the government support. ESGR is also here to support them. We thank them for protecting and defending our way of life,” Sablan said.
The welcoming at the airport was followed by a motorcade.
Around Saipan, yellow ribbons were tied to trees and poles to show the community’s gratefulness and “welcome home” for the soldiers.