Press-Republican

February 10, 2013

Soldiers' joyous return tinged with sadness

ANDREA VanVALKENBURG
Press-Republican

MALONE — PLATTSBURGH — After a year-long deployment in Afghanistan, Alex Santo had definite plans for his first night home.

The U.S. Army Reserve specialist planned to test drive his new truck then relax and spend time with family and friends.

“And he wants to go shopping for normal clothes,” laughed his mom, Tammy Santo.

The Upper Jay native was one of five local reservists who landed at Plattsburgh International Airport Tuesday night, following an 11-month tour of duty in Afghanistan with the 444th Engineer Company of Oswego.

They are the latest soldiers from the North Country to return from deployment as the U.S. presence in Afghanistan winds down.

SLEEPLESS NIGHTS

“It’s good to be home, and it’s great to see everyone,” said Spec. Adam Lord as he stood in uniform, surrounded by family and friends at the airport.

His loved ones had anxiously awaited his return and celebrated with tears, hugs and a round of applause when he stepped through the airport gates.

“My stomach has been full of butterflies. We’re so excited to see him,” Lord’s mother, Jamie, said from her Ellenburg Center home before his arrival.

“There were a lot of sleepless nights worrying about him. I know (the soldiers) are well-trained, but you still worry. We’re just so proud of him.”

Lord found his calling to service in high school, when he signed on for the Future Soldiers Program while a student at Northern Adirondack Central, from which he graduated in 2008.

FIRST STOP: TEXAS

It was a third deployment for First Sgt. Tom Lauzon of Bombay, who was greeted by his wife, Tracey, and teen daughter, Kelsie.

“We’re just so glad to have him home,” Tracey said.

Spec. Shawn Jacob of Brasher Falls and Spec. Carmelo Cruz of Plattsburgh were also greeted by standing ovations.

The soldiers first landed at Fort Bliss, Texas, late last month for demobilization before heading home to their families and former lives.

LOST COMRADES

Their arrival was bittersweet for many, though, as the men returned without three members of their unit.

Port Henry native Staff Sgt. Dain Venne was killed in action Nov. 3 when an improvised explosive device went off near his vehicle while his unit was clearing a convoy path.

Spc. Ryan Jayne of Campbell and Spc. Brett Gornewicz of Alden were also killed in the blast, which injured a fourth soldier, Kale Clifton of Smyrna.

Venne, a volunteer football coach and firefighter, is now laid to rest in Port Henry.

“There’s no such thing as a safe war, and we all know it could happen, but it’s still difficult,” Santo said somberly from his home Wednesday morning.

“(Venne) was my squad leader the whole time I was there, so it’s been hard.”

He planned a little personal tribute to his fallen comrade on his first official day home.

“One thing I’m going to do today is drive down to Port Henry and see everything,” said Santo, who now sports a wristband honoring the three fallen soldiers.

“I think it’s just something we’re all going to do in our own time.”

As he copes with that sorrow and readjusts to civilian life, Santo said, he’s thankful to have the support of the Army and his fellow soldiers.

SHARED SORROW

Like many service mothers, his mom was elated to have her son home safe but heartbroken for the families who will not share in that joy.

“I’m just so happy and glad he’s home. It’s been difficult, and I definitely had a couple of meltdowns,” she said tearfully.

“And at the same time, I’m so sorry for the other families. My heart goes out to them, and I want them to all know that we’re thinking of them.”

Lord’s mother shared in those somber sentiments and was thinking of the fallen soldiers upon her son’s return.

“You’re happy for yourself, but my heart aches for those families and the soldiers who lost their brothers in arms,” Jamie said.

“My thoughts go out to the families whose sons aren’t coming home.”