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FOUR AIR GUARDSMEN HOME FROM IRAQ

A delayed flight only heightened the anticipation Friday night at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, where more than 100 people awaited the return of four Air National Guardsmen from duty in Iraq.

At the first glimpse of men wearing desert camouflage walking into the concourse, the crowd broke into applause and cheers. It took several minutes for the four members of the 107th Air Refueling Wing to get through a mob of loved ones who had pressed as close as they dared to the secured passenger area.

The six-month deployment was over for James Balcom of the City of Tonawanda, Patrick Buell of Kenmore, Adam Harvey of Sanborn and Randy Shenefiel of Falconer. Just one member of the 107th, a colonel, remains in Iraq.

Tonawanda High School's boys varsity swimming team was there to greet Balcom -- their coach and a physical education teacher at Highland Elementary School. They wore T-shirts bearing the message "We Swim For Jim" on the back.

"It's unbelievable. This reception . . .," said Balcom, who, after greeting family, had disappeared into the swarm of his swimmers and students.

While overseas, Balcom had kept in touch with the young men through e-mails to Lisa Schroeder, the girls' swimming coach who had taken over Balcom's team for the season. They finished the season with an 8-3 record, the team's best since 1963.

Balcom became the coach when he went to work for the district in the 2002-03 school year. There hadn't been a swimming team in seven years, said Joyce Hogenkamp, a School Board member and president of the booster club.

"He was a big part of getting it going again," Hogenkamp said.

E-mails and phone calls also kept Balcom in touch with his father, James Sr.

"He had two major questions that he would ask me all the time: 'Do we have tickets to the Michigan NASCAR race?' and 'Are we going to Barbados when I get home?' " his father said.

The answers are "yes" and a conditional "no." There wouldn't be enough time for Balcom to get a passport to travel to Barbados, so the destination was changed to St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

As if the hazards of serving in Iraq weren't enough, Balcom placed a worried phone call to his grandmother last week; the two had been incommunicado while his grandparents spent a month in Las Vegas.

"Where were you, Grandma?" Balcom asked Sandy Balcom when he finally reached her. "He was really worried about us," his grandmother said.

While in Iraq, there was a lot of time to think about his feelings for those back home, Balcom said. "I spent the past five months making sure everyone knew, if I didn't come home."

Safely back, "I'm going to make sure that I take this time that I have home now and make it the best that I can," he said.

e-mail: jhabuda@buffnews.com

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