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Return from a deadly tour; Loved ones gather as Marines are home from Afghan War

Joy overflowed Wednesday afternoon as Marines from India Company returned home to Buffalo from a deadly tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Cpl. Peter Freundschuh met his 5-month-old daughter for the first time.

Gently hoisting her up in his arms, Freundschuh smiled ear-to-ear at baby Gwen, as his wife, Patty, watched him enjoy the sight of their child.

But during the months in Afghanistan, Freundschuh, who lives in North Tonawanda, was never too far from family. His brother Michael, of Pendleton, also served in the deployment.

And the Freundschuhs weren't the only family team in Afghanistan.

There was also a father-son team. The older James Monroe of Philadelphia and the younger James Monroe of Amherst found themselves surrounded by family at the Navy Operational Support Center-Marine Corps Reserve Center at the foot of Porter Avenue in Buffalo.

Neither of the Monroes goes by senior or junior. But it was easy to identify the love they felt for each other as family and as soldiers.

Cheektowaga police Officer Justin Haag, who served in 2005 with India Company in Afghanistan, made a point of welcoming home his unit, including a solid handshake for Gunnery Sgt. Carlo Lodico.

And so it went Wednesday afternoon, countless reunions with hugs and kisses and back slaps and tears. It was good to be home, and many at the scene took snapshots to preserve the memories.

"It never gets old coming home," said Staff Sgt. Matthew Drake, a Rochester-area resident who, in his nine years in the Marines, is finishing his fifth tour overseas, twice each to Afghanistan and Iraq and once to Japan.

A big red and gold banner strung to a fence outside the military installation read: "Welcome Home, India Company Marines." It marked the conclusion of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment's second trip to Afghanistan.

Red, white and blue balloons whipped around in the blustery early spring snowstorm.

The homecoming was also bittersweet. One of India Company's comrades did not make it home: Lance Cpl. Aaron Swanson of Lakewood was killed in action Feb. 7.

Wednesday's wintry weather was a far cry from Afghanistan's climate, but Drake, dressed head to toe in khaki Marine Corps fatigues, pulled a matching suitcase down Porter Avenue through heavy snow, thrilled to be heading to a waiting sport utility vehicle for the ride home.

"This is something," he quipped about the storm on the fourth day of spring.

In this latest tour, which began last August, the unit was stationed in Helmand, a larger province in southern Afghanistan that has seen much fighting between coalition forces and the Taliban, Drake said.

He couldn't discuss specific missions but said they generally ran the gamut from infantry to humanitarian. Drake said he was most proud of his unit's effort to build a school there for children who had been without one for 20 years.

The estimated 140 Marines who returned to Buffalo landed at Prior Aviation in Cheektowaga at 3:30 p.m. and filed into two tour buses for a short drive to the reserve center.

Though the drive only took about 15 minutes, there was no mistaking its significance. More than a dozen police patrol vehicles from area law enforcement agencies provided an escort, complete with flashing lights and sirens.

As the battle-tested Marines exited the buses, they shook hands with members of the Patriot Guard Riders and police officers who hurried out of their patrol cars to join a line of American flags.

"The Marines stopped to shake hands with a lot the Guard Riders and police officers," said Joe Shiah, a ride captain with the Patriot Guard. "We were yelling, 'Welcome home. Thank you for your service.' Usually we are very quiet on the flag line, but this was just one of those days."

If the flag line got a little overly exuberant, that was only to be topped by "loud, raucous and emotional" cheers that went up as the Marines rushed into the center.

Mothers wept at the sight of their sons, children were laughing at the sight of their dads, and, as Shiah said, "It was just a really good day."

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com and tpignataro@buffnews.com

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