WARWICK — Waiting in her car to see her husband for the first time in 10 months, Marie Potter was remarkably composed. Their three children had been led to believe she was at work (she’s an ICU nurse at Kent Hospital) and they were in for a surprise when she came home with Dad. 

Families of 160 National Guard soldiers returning from deployment in seven countries of the Middle East and southwest Asia, waited in private cars properly spaced for social distancing Thursday night in the vast sloped parking lot at the Knight campus of the Community College of Rhode Island, in Warwick. 

The homecoming had been planned like a military operation during a time of pandemic.

Lt. Col. Jeff Floyd, who stayed in Rhode Island because he has other units to look after, said the 160 soldiers returning from Operation Spartan Shield were probably the least likely to be carrying the coronavirus of anyone in Rhode Island. Not only had they all been tested without a single positive result, he said, they had spent the last two weeks “in a bubble” of quarantine at Fort Bliss in Texas.

Thanksgiving morning, they got up at 1 a.m. Central time to catch a commercial flight they had to themselves. But they couldn’t board because weather and a mechanical problem kept them in the terminal in Texas for four more hours.

Families were notified by phone tree that the arrival would be at 8:45 p.m. instead of 3.

From the top of the parking lot, officers could see families doing exactly what was recommended. Bring only one car per soldier, give your soldier’s name and get a placard, park in the section indicated by the placard, keep at least six feet between the cars, wear masks and wait for the soldier to come to the car.

In most homecomings, Floyd said, 700 or so family members form a line across a hangar opening at Quonset or in the Guard building across from the airport, and as soldiers file into the crowd, the line clumps into knots and joyful pandemonium breaks out. In this homecoming, everybody had to be kept at least 6 feet apart. Soldiers whose last name starts in the first fourth of the alphabet got on the first bus and went the farthest into the lot, stopping where early alphabet families were parked.

As she waited for the motor coaches bearing loved ones in alphabetical order, Marie Potter said her husband, Capt. Patrick Potter, who commanded the 115th Military Police Company on its mission, had deployed in January. They would text frequently and do a video call “every couple of days.” She, her mother and the kids, ages 11, 7, and 3, couldn’t put the big Thanksgiving dinner on hold. “He’s going to get leftovers,” she said. 

She marveled that the soldiers have missed the entire coronavirus drama here. “Wait ’til he goes to the grocery store.” She also observed: “This was the longest year,” with the extra six-hour wait adding to that feeling. “I can’t believe it’s over,” she said. “It kind of went by fast.” 

Wearing a custom sweatshirt that said Welcome Home 1Lt. McCurdy, Lisa McCurdy, the unit’s Soldier and Family Readiness Group leader, kept looking up the hill for any sign of a bus brigade.

There’s a siren, someone said.  Maybe it’s them!

A family from Maine had propped two signs on their truck window, both welcoming Mandy Smith home. They had almost finished giving their names when the parking lot exploded with car horns honking, and sure enough, the first big bus broke the mist and rolled in.

Jackie Seale, 45, with Jordan, 14, and Julius, 12, of Portsmouth, waited for their Sgt. 1st Class Adam Seale. Jackie, asked what she would do when she first saw him, answered: “I’ll just give him a big hug,” and that’s just what she did.

Mandy Smith tried to walk toward the family van, but she was enrobed in hugs, and her mother, Nikki Smith, broke off to exclaim: “It’s the most amazing thing I have ever seen!” then she added “Best Thanksgiving Ever!”

Asked how everybody looked to her, Mandy replied: “Different.”

In just minutes, the excitement was almost over.

Bryeshia Jennings, 24, sat behind the steering wheel and Spc. Carter Stanley, 25, sat in the passenger seat. They got out for a photo. Jennings said they met at Esek Hopkins Middle School in Providence. A car pulled up. It was Sgt. Jeremiah Richardson, who gave Stanley a long hug, then explained, as the men stood shoulder to shoulder, “This is my brother,” meaning brother in arms. They had served together on the tour before this one, when they mostly refueled Blackhawks, Stanley said. Richardson has been deployed in Rhode Island to help contain the coronavirus.

Stanley has one more duty, he said — to attend the yellow-ribbon event on Saturday. There, the returning soldiers will be reunited with their laundry, which flew separately, and get briefed on the benefits available to them. They’ll have people check in various ways to make sure they’re OK.

After that, he said, he’ll “take some time, settle in, focus on my priorities.”

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