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Williams among first to return from Iraq

MILLENNIUM – The fire whistle pierced the early evening air here Wednesday.

There was no emergency; just a signal sent to Millennium residents to gather and give a proper welcome home to a hero of this tiny Hertford County community.

Sgt. First Class Thomas Williams was the honoree, hopping from his seat within a pick-up truck and falling into the warm embrace of family and friends who welcomed him home from duty in war-torn Iraq.

&uot;Millennium….you are a sight for these sore eyes,&uot; said Sgt. Williams, still dressed in his desert fatigues. &uot;I love you, one and all.&uot;

Williams then proceeded to personally greet each of the 30 people assembled for his homecoming at the Millennium fire station.

Wife Darlene and sons Tom and John accompanied Sgt. Williams during the final leg of his trip home. He arrived around noon on Wednesday at Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville, was bused over to nearby Fort Bragg, and spent a couple of hours in debriefing before being reunited with members of his immediate family.

When asked was he ready for a ride to Ahoskie, Sgt. Williams was quick to respond with, &uot;no, I’ve been waiting, flying and riding for three days. I’m ready to get home.&uot;

Darlene Williams said the couple had no immediate plans, other than to celebrate a belated Christmas together.

&uot;The presents are still under the tree,&uot; she said. &uot;We were just waiting for this day to come.&uot;

Other community members were also happy to see their hero.

&uot;I’ve waited for this day for such a long time,&uot; noted Donna Hoggard. &uot;Thomas is such a great man, so kind and so gentle. He had flowers sent to me while he was in Iraq, a thoughtful gift to let me know he was thinking of me while I was about to under chemotherapy treatments. I cried the day I received those flowers and I still cry when I tell that story. That alone tells you how special a man Thomas Williams is.&uot;

During his deployment with the North Carolina National Guard’s 30th Heavy Separate Brigade, Sgt. Williams was assigned to a unit that remained just north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. There, his job detailed helping to rebuild an area ravaged by war. He was also part of a public relations team.

His brigade – totaling nearly 5,000 in number, approximately 3,400 of which hailed from North Carolina – was one of the first major National Guard units deployed to Iraq. His flight home was among the first of many troop-laden planes that will make their way back to Fayetteville. The entire brigade, including other Roanoke-Chowan area citizen-soldiers – are expected to be home by early January.

&uot;There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t think of home, but I knew I had a job to do,&uot; he said. &uot;What made it a bit easier was the fact that the Iraqi citizens in our area were so appreciative of the job we were doing. It made us feel that what we were doing was worth all the effort.&uot;

Sgt. Williams and his 30th Brigade comrades began preparing for their deployment well over one year ago. They left for Iraq in February, under the assumption that their duty would cover a pre-determined 12-month period.

&uot;I didn’t ask any questions when they informed us we might have our tour cut short by two months,&uot; he smiled. &uot;We were all anxious to get back home.&uot;

National guardsmen from Tennessee replaced the North Carolina troops. The troops from the Volunteer State arrived in Iraq in early December.

Even with the thought of an early departure, Williams stressed that he and his comrades never let their guard down.

&uot;We were always under the threat of attacks from Iraqi insurgent groups,&uot; he said. &uot;We were always on our toes, expecting the worse.&uot;

After a brief stay at home, Sgt. Williams faces a return visit to Fort Bragg for another round of debriefing. That is expected to last for less than one week. Then he hopes to settle back into a normal routine, one that includes his full-time job at the Ahoskie National Guard Armory.

Meanwhile, he’ll continue to receive the warm wishes of those who missed their hero over the last 10 months.

&uot;It’s good to be home,&uot; he concluded, climbing back into the truck for the short ride from the fire station to his residence. &uot;Thank ya’ll for being here tonight and please remember that I love each and every one of you.&uot;

For those gathered at the welcome home celebration on Wednesday, that feeling was mutual as all expressed their appreciation to Williams for making the sacrifice to protect their freedom.