Battalion home for Fourth of July

Chloe Bollin stood on a chair and waved an American flag Saturday, hoping to spot the person who’d make this Fourth of July special.

Chloe’s daddy, Army Sgt. Anthony Bollin, had just spent 15 months in Iraq as a member of the 14th Engineer Battalion. He’s had to leave home before, but the tour in Iraq was his longest.

Like other soldiers on deployment, Bollin stayed in touch with his family by telephone, Internet and mail. When he left in April 2008, his youngest daughter, Ainsley, was only 7 months old.

So on Saturday, he joined 350 other soldiers from the unit who roared with joy when their commander officially dismissed them to their families during a ceremony on post.

The Army says it wasn’t trying to purposefully schedule the homecoming for Fourth of July, but it did make the event just that much more meaningful.

Bollin, a burly man, melted when he hugged his daughters – Chloe, 7, Abigail, 3, and of course, Ainsley, now almost 2 – for the first time in more than a year.

“Today is just a great day,” he said, choking up while talking about his time away from his kids and wife Ami. “It’s a great day for our country. It’s a great day for all the guys.”

That was the sentiment the soldiers and more than 300 of their family and friends shared Saturday, as fathers and mothers returned home and saw how much their kids had grown.

Shantelle Silva of Olympia and daughter Illeanna Sanchez, 8 months old, waited for her daddy, Sgt. 1st Class Jessie Sanchez.

“He’s been watching her grow up on the Internet,” Silva said.

By 3:30 p.m., families and friends began to pack the gymnasium where the soldiers would eventually arrive. They held up signs, waved flags and fanned themselves to stay cool in the hot gymnasium.

They watched a live television feed of the soldiers on a giant screen as they arrived at McChord Air Force Base. They were transported by bus to Fort Lewis.

Kimberly Murray, who returned from Iraq last month as a member of the 42nd MP Brigade, waited for her husband, Lt. Michael Murray.

She was accompanied by their sons – Devante, 16, Michael, 14, Montavious, 10, and Carlton, 10 – along with Pamela Dennis, Michael Murray’s mother who flew from Maryland for the homecoming. They were easy to spot, given the red, white and blue balloons held up by one of the boys.

“I’m pretty anxious,” Kimberly Murray said. “I’m excited that he’s finally home.”

Around 5 p.m., the buses finally arrived, and the soldiers lined up in formation behind a curtain shielding them from the audience.

After a short ceremony and some remarks by Fort Lewis leaders, the curtain went up, causing the crowd to erupt.

“There’s Daddy!” one child screamed.

Once they were dismissed, the soldiers rushed to their love ones, exchanging hugs, kisses and tears.

Dennis jumped up and down when she saw her son.

“Talking to him is one thing, but actually seeing him is another,” she said.

Michael Murray didn’t try to hide his plans for the rest of the holiday. “Go get some sleep,” he said.

Bollin said standing behind the curtain was the toughest part of the ceremony because he wanted to reunite with his family as quickly as possible.

He also was clear about his holiday agenda.

“I’m going to go home. I’m going to fire up my grill. I’m going to watch the fireworks,” he said.

Brent Champaco: 253-597-8653