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Last California National Guard Unit Comes Home from Iraq

No parade — just hugs, tears and sighs of relief

A small crowd of family and friends gathered at the San Mateo armory Friday morning to greet the last California National Guard unit to return from Iraq.

There were no pronouncements from public officials. There was no victory parade. Just the tears and hugs of families reunited after a year apart — and a sense of relief that loved ones were home safe

"It's still a dangerous place, but we need to give the Iraqis time to build their country themselves," said Capt. Donald Nodora, commander of the San Mateo-based 297th Medical Company.

Nodora said the California Guard unit helped dismantle most of a massive U.S. military hospital in Basra during its 10 months in Iraq, eventually handing over a much smaller facility to the State Department and the Iraqi government. The new facility will serve diplomats and private military contractors, he said.

"Who knows what will happen in the future. Time will tell," said Nodora, 41, as he held his two children, 14-month-old Kai and 6-year-old Angelina, in his arms, kissing them over and over again.

The quiet and inconclusive nature of the war's end permeated the homecoming. After the ouster of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and years-long battles with insurgents, no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. The long-term implications of the conflict remain unclear.

Asked what he thought the war had accomplished, Guard spokesman Lt. Jan Michael Bender would only offer the following: "As a soldier, we're here to train for war, pray for peace and follow orders."

"It feels good to have them coming home. It's been a long time coming," said Andrea Voci, a nurse at the Palo Alto VA Hospital, who sat nervously waiting for her co-worker to return from the deployment.

As he waited for his son, Christopher, to arrive, David Buzzone, a retired firefighter from Millbrae, worried about the Bay Area's tough job market. He said he thought Christopher's service as a medic in Iraq could help him find work as a firefighter or paramedic.

Reached by telephone, the area's congresswoman, Rep. Jackie Speier, said the return of the last California Guard unit from Iraq "sent goosebumps up and down my back."

"What's new is that we can say we are out of Iraq, but that we're still in Afghanistan 10 years after Sept. 11," she said.

Speier argued that the end of the Iraq war should usher in a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan and a renewed focus on providing health care and other benefits to returning veterans.

In October, more than eight years after the Iraq war began, President Barack Obama announced that U.S. troops would be home by year's end.

"The last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq — with their heads held high, proud of their success, and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops. That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end," the president said.

Fifteen thousand members of the California National Guard have deployed to Iraq, and another 4,000 have been sent to Afghanistan, where 870 are still serving.

According to the Pentagon, 4,473 American servicemen and women, including 478 from California, have died in the Iraq war. Another 32,226 have been wounded in action, including more than 3,000 from California.

"This is a historic time of transition for the United States and for the people of Iraq, and it's an especially poignant time for the veteran community. Many of us gave a large part of our lives and some gave all" to support the war, said Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq war veteran and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Nationally, more than 600,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have filed disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and 30,000 have sought out VA health care in Northern California.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, more than 10,000 Northern California veterans have been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder or a related condition, including 3,312 in the East Bay, 2,830 in Palo Alto and 1,315 in San Francisco.

According to a Bay Citizen analysis of death certificates, more than 1,000 military veterans under 35 died in California between 2005 and 2008.

"Far too many [veterans] are coming home to record levels of unemployment, suicide and mental health injuries," Rieckhoff said. "They deserve more than just Yellow Ribbons and a pat on the back."

Still, at the homecoming, the mood was joyous. For an hour after Sgt. Bobby Im stepped off the Guard's charter bus, his 3-year-old daughter Emily stood by his side, holding his hand and skipping as he walked across the armory floor.

"It's been crazy, Murphy's Law galore with him gone," said Christina Im, Emily's mother. "There have been so many meltdowns because its hard to explain why Daddy is gone."

"It will be great to have him back," she said.

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