They kissed hello in the hot exhaust of a Greyhound bus, one long embrace melting five months of separation and fear.
André Neil Price was home from the war.
The Mesa Marine Corps reservist was one of nearly 300 from his unit who arrived Thursday at their west Phoenix headquarters.
His wife, Tara, 9-year-old son Alexander and other family members were there to greet him.
Price’s unit, Bulk Fuel Company C, assigned to the 6th Engineer Support Battalion, left for the Persian Gulf in January. During the war in Iraq they operated a 90-mile hose refueling system and provided other support to active combat units. They returned Monday to San Diego and climbed aboard six Greyhounds at 3 a.m. Thursday for the ride back to the Valley.
Several hundred moms, dads, wives and children waited on unshaded blacktop — some as long as four hours — for the buses to arrive. They held balloons and yellow roses, flags and babies. Many wore T-shirts bearing their Marine loved ones’ pictures. As they sweated in the rising June sun, someone could have made a killing selling bottled water to the crowd.
But few complained as the scheduled 9 a.m. arrival time stretched an hour beyond that. In fact, André’s mother, Theresa Price, was smiling almost the whole time.
She directs the American Indian education program for the Mesa Unified School District, serving about 2,800 kids. She arrived about 7:30 a.m., wearing a camouflage hat and toting a small flag, which occasionally served to block the sun.
Her 30-year-old son, a lance corporal, has been in the reserves for two years; he does customized house framing and is a graduate of Westwood High School.
News of his deployment was tough, she said. “We never thought it would happen, them having to leave the country and go to war.” His last letter from Iraq, dated May 1, spoke of awful dust storms and punishing heat — but “they had got the job done and they had served their purpose,” she said.
She was there with a close friend, Mayfa Jin of Flagstaff, whose son Nataani — Navajo for “leader” — also came home Thursday morning. Nataani Jin, also a lance corporal, lives with André Price and his family in Mesa. In civilian life, he is an architect; he joined the Marine reserves after graduating from the University of Arizona.
“Those two grew up together since childhood,” Theresa Price said. “They consider each other brothers.”
André Price’s grandfather Nelson Earl, 72, lives in Granado on the Navajo Nation near Window Rock, and made the long trip to the Valley on Wednesday so he could welcome André home.
Earl had been a Marine, too. He fired artillery at Communist troops during the Korean War half a century ago. When his grandson went to Iraq, Earl said, “I just prayed for him. I knew he would come back.”
The company took no casualties during the war, said Lance Cpl. Domonic Holston of Phoenix, but the battalion of which it is part lost three men.
Conditions were hostile, Holston said. “To describe it would be rude, because I’d have to go pick up a pile of sand and throw it in your face.”
By Thursday the Marines had washed the sand off and looked quite sharp in desert camouflage as they spilled from the buses. The crowd, held back during the long wait by other Marines, was tentative at first, then sprinted toward the returning warriors. Somehow loved ones found one another in the surging mob.
André Price hugged his family as diesel fumes belched around them, and laid plans for his first evening home.
“Just relax, spend time with the family,” he said.
Tara said, “At one point he just wanted to go to a movie,” or maybe to an Italian restaurant.
“He might just lay on the couch and eat cereal, she said. “Whatever he wants to do . . .”