Havre Daily News
For a year and a half, Staff Sgt. Brian “Riley” Johnson waited for the day he could return to his wife and three children in Havre. Two weeks ago, the waiting ended.
Johnson, 31, returned from an 18-month tour in Iraq with the Montana National Guard Headquarters Company of the 1-163rd Infantry, stationed at the Warrior Forward Operating Base in Kirkuk. He served with 1-163rd because they needed a mechanic. He's originally of the 443rd Petroleum, Oil and Lubricants Company.
“They were short on jobs,” he said.
His family anxiously waited for his airplane to arrive in Belgrade. He said the first thing his wife, Nicole, said to him when he had arrived was, “You're home, baby.”
“It's a surreal feeling. You don't really realize what's going on until you see the plane,” 26-year-old Nicole said. “It's starting to hit me now that he's actually home.”
Riley said he missed common things like hot water, nearby bathroom facilities and refrigerated food.
“It really makes you appreciate what you have here ... the simple things that we all take for granted,” he said.
What he missed the most was his family.
Before he left on June 28, 2004, Riley and Nicole measured their children's heights. They had grown about 8 inches total. Nicole said their youngest child, 3-year-old Laney, was a toddler when Riley left.
“When my husband left, my youngest was 18 months and he was gone 18 months,” she said.
“I missed half of her life,” Riley added.
Their other children are Brandi, 8, and Mitchel, 4.
He found reminders of his children in the war-torn streets of Iraq.
“The kids really make you miss your own kids,” he said. “You see the kids standing alongside of the road waiting for the GIs to throw them candy, footballs, soccer balls or something like that. It's really sad to see some of them because they ran around without shoes and clothes.”
Brandi was ecstatic when her father visited her third-grade class at Lincoln-McKinley Primary School on Friday. She may be young, but Brandi understood why her father had to leave.
“He helped others. He helped build things over there, and he stopped the bad guys,” she said. “The president (Saddam Hussein) hurt almost everyone over there. He wouldn't let anyone do anything that he didn't want them to do.”
Brandi said she mainly kept in touch with her father through e-mails because they didn't take as long as letters to get to him. She attached smiley faces that said, “Hi soldier!” to keep a smile on her father's face.
Riley showed Betty Callies' class some Iraqi money, a wooden jewelry box he got for Brandi, a small Quran with a cover made of out of sheep skin, and a variety of medical supplies.
Riley let students try on his bulletproof vest and demonstrated on several students how a soldier could use the straps on the vest to drag a wounded comrade to safety.
He also demonstrated how to put on a gas mask and explained why soldiers needed their equipment and armor.
“It was awesome,” Callies said. “The war is on the news all of the time, and it's nice for the students to see parents of their peers who were part of the Iraqi conflict.”
Riley served as a mechanic for the National Guard and repaired military vehicles, sometimes all night long.
“I worked every single day for seven months, from almost 7 in the morning until 10, 11 o'clock at night,” he said. “Sometimes we worked all night long.”
Riley said the list of things the National Guard is doing in Iraq is endless, including rebuilding schools, sewer systems and the country's government.
“That's why we went over there, to make Iraq a better place, and that's what we're doing still to this day. And that's what we'll continue to do in the future,” Riley told the students.
On Saturday morning, a parade was held in honor of soldiers who have returned from Iraq. A line of military vehicles, escorted by the Havre Police Department, drove from the Holiday Village Shopping Center, down First Street and then on Fifth Avenue to the Fifth Avenue Christian Church, where a luncheon was served.
Stephanie Ford, a Fifth Avenue Christian Church member, organized the parade.
Ford is in a Bible study group with Nicole. Ford said the group wanted to do something to show appreciation for the returning soldiers.
“Nicole wanted something to welcome them home. We worked with the mayor and he wanted to do something too. We just used the church because they have a nice ending point and a big enough space to have lunch,” she said. “We wanted to honor the guard members who had just returned from Iraq.”