The Hancock-Henderson Quill, Inc.

Area Soldiers Welcomed Home From Iraq War

by Dessa Rodeffer, The Quill Publisher/Owner

Another group of Illinois National Guardsmen returned home from Iraq Sunday, with an enthusiastic caravan of well-wishers escorting them from Milan to their hometowns.

There were 24 soldiers from Galesburg's Second Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery unit, who arrived in Fort Dix, New Jersey, on January 1st, then flew into Quad City International Airport in Moline Sunday morning, January 8th. The soldiers have been stationed in Iraq since November 2004.

Shortly before noon, crowds of well-wishers lined along Schuyler Street in Oquawka, waving flags, yelling, and giving a true heroes' "welcome home" as four of their residents returned from a year-long deployment.

Among them were Norris Crooks, 55, a janitor in 2004 at Union High School, B.J. Carlson, 25, employed at Wal-Mart Distributor's Center in Mt Pleasant, Iowa; and Christopher Sipes, 27 on the 12th, and is employed at IAAP in Middletown, Iowa.

Monday evening a dinner reception was held at the Oquawka Eagles Club, where family and friends celebrated with Norris, B.J., Chris plus a returning buddy from Knoxville, Brian Sornberger, 23.

Although all were very excited and joyful at the homecoming, emotions were high. There was still a lot of stress from the year's long separation from family while dealing with fighting a war.

Christopher Sipes

"Chris" Sipes and his wife Julie (Miller) found it was an adjustment both in his leaving and his returning but Chris commended the Army for the classes they gave before returning home to help adjust soldiers to the homecoming.

Sipes has a 5-year-old daughter Kiersten and a 2-year old son Kolten who have changed a lot in a year. Wife

Julie said, "It was hard with two children, but I learned to make decisions on my own. I knew there was a chance he wouldn't be coming home. I would get phone calls that said, U.S. Government and I would be afraid to answer for fear what I might hear. I spent a lot of time at my mom's and dad's and sisters. They gave me the support I needed, and I kept things from him, not to worry him."

Chris said he stayed distant in order to focus on the job in Iraq as his priority, and didn't want to hear about the little things. "I would stay away from emotions."

The homecoming was exhausting as both have changed. Chris admitted his first reaction was not good about money spent on new curtains that he didn't know about. Things like that didn't seem important anymore after serving in Iraq.

After he thought about it walking through the house that first night, Chris said he saw the sunflowers in them, and the beauty she had brought to the home and was so thankful for them.

Before he came home he was worried if he would be the same guy when he came home to his wife. "Would I be a good parent?" he questioned.

Chris said he knew friends who's biggest problem is that they didn't want to talk about it. "I wondered how people were going to look at me. Some put it out of their mind but others live off it, and try to become a better person.

"I found I don't take things for granted is the biggest thing. When I hear the words, "Daddy, come play with me," I don't put it off, but I quit what I am doing and come right away. I found out in Iraq, a lot can happen in 5 minutes."

Chris wants to be good with his son, daughter and wife, though he and Julie both know it is going to be hard. Everyone has changed a lot.

At the same time, it's such a comfort. Riding in the car last night, he turned the wheel over to his wife and fell asleep. It was the first time he had slept while riding in a vehicle for a year. His wife said that night was the first night she had slept without waking every hour.

During the year, Chris, who trained to be a military police officer, said he did not like the "big news channels" making it way worse than it is over there. If someone is killed, he said, they gave their lives and they have names and should be mentioned and not just a number.

"I'd like to give a plug for one of our soldiers Luke Stricklen, who wrote a great song called "American by God's Amazing Grace". Ninety percent of the soldiers think like that. Most people just want to be free and to be able to think for themselves."

Brian CARLSON, Jr.

B.J. CARLSON, 25, and single has been in the National Guard 5 years. Things pretty well changed overnight for him. He signed up for a college education, but his 4th day of training was 9-11.

"That was pretty scary, then the Drill Sergeants said we would be going to war," he said.

It wasn't until three years later in 2004 when they were initially deployed. He was ready to fight.

"We took it to the country where it needed to be," said B.J.

"This is the greatest country in the world, and I was ready to defend her! Everyone woke up (after 9-11)."

"During WWII everyone in the nation worked for the war effort, but during Vietnam they didn't. Now, maybe some think differently politically, but they all agree that our soldiers are America's heroes and they are very supportive of us."

B.J. also wants to counteract the negative news media.

"I want to let people know that we are making a difference over there. We are helping them. I have seen it first hand. I have seen children with gifted military backpacks, schools are being opened, hospitals are opening, children are getting books. I want Americans to be proud of our soldiers still fighting over there. It is a good thing what we are doing."

B.J. said that two people he knew have given their life for the cause of America's freedom.

"Their families have paid the highest price. Make sure Americans know, we are making progress."

B.J. was a gunner and sat on top of a Hummer sometimes working 12 hour days, other times working 3-4 hours with time off and then 3-4 hours again. It varied. The hardest two weeks was when he left his fellow soldiers for his R&R break and after the first couple days home, he missed them, and then going back and missing his family and friends at home.

He was disgusted with Ameica's media reports making it look worst than it is.

"We would go days and weeks without seeing anything. Things are better there and they are glad we are there.... They want us there."


NORRIS CROOKS, is happy to return to his home and to his wife Cheryl (Pullen) and children Brandon, 16 and Justin 14 who attend West Central School. Cheryl said she hadn't been able to sleep until he was home and friends were teasing that they had never seen her smile so much. He has served twenty years, in Vietnam, in the Gulf War, and now in Iraq. There is no comparison in the Vietnam conflict and this one he said. Vietnam was a jungle war with a lot of live fire and a lot of uncertainty.

In Iraq, you didn't know who the enemy was but you felt better about fighting this war."

"I love being home and I am satisfied to stay," he said. "I loved the welcome home, people extended to us. I just couldn't believe the support back here. It was super, especially the Madhatters Club. Everyone was great all during the year with letters and care packages."

Norris also has two married children, Shannon Crooks, 31 of Monmouth and Karisa Byrd, 27, of Orlando, Florida.

Brian Sornberger

Also returning from Iraq was twenty-three year old Brian Sornberger, Specialist of Knoxville. Brian has served six years and three months and was part of the Eagles Club celebration as a special guest of Chris Sipes.

Brian said he had one brother who served in the Navy during the Gulf War. "I was sort of expecting it but not anticipating it. I felt numb at the time."

He knew with the backing of his parents he could get through it. "My brother was on a ship the entire time, August through March during the Gulf War with "Stormin' Norman." It was totally different in the Army on the ground. We mainly were showing our forces as we drove around. I truly do believe the Iraqi people want us there."

Brian and his mother were both very appreciative of the support everyone has given them.

He was escorted into Knoxville by their volunteer Fire Department which he is a member of, and by the Police Department along with family, friends and community support. Every marquee in town had a welcome home message, his mother said. The Knoxville United Methodist Church was especially helpful, he said. There were a lot of yellow ribbons. The American Legion gave him a free year's membership.

"The hardest thing was losing my dad suddenly 8 days after I arrived in Iraq, February 15th, and it took to the 19th to get home." He was diagnosed on the 15th with cancer and the next day he died."

"Yesterday's welcome home was awesome, all the way! I am enjoying family and friends."

Feeling happy to be on American soil are four soldiers enjoying a reception held at the Oquawka Eagles Club Monday evening for area soldiers who returned home from the 123rd Field Artillery. From left are four of the 24 soldiers: Norris Crooks, Oquawka, Christopher Sipes, Oquawka, his friend Brian Sornberger of Knoxville, and B.J. Carlson of Oquawka. The four visited about the experiences serving their country.

Chris Sipes returns to Oquawka and his family, wife Julie (Miller) Sipes and their two children Kiersten and Kolten.