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Tuesday, November 25, 2003

S.A. soldier gets a hero's welcome home

S.A. soldier gets a hero's welcome home

By Vincent T. Davis
San Antonio Express-News

Web Posted : 11/25/2003 12:00 AM

After completing a seven-month tour of duty, Staff Sgt. Gilbert Ytuarte was looking forward to spending time with his wife, Rose, and their three daughters at their home in Fort Sill, Okla.
The 12-year Army veteran, who returned from Iraq two days ago, planned to visit his parents and brothers in San Antonio at a later date.

But his mother, Angelita, and older brother, Santiago, had other plans.

They persuaded him to drive his family back home, and when he turned into his mother's driveway Monday night, he found a hero's welcome waiting for him. A shocked look registered on his face as he walked up a pebble path lined with a dozen miniature flags that led to steps decorated with red, white and blue balloons.

Peeking from her half-opened door, his mother shouted, "He's here!"

"Well, hello!" Ytuarte, 36, said, surprised at the sight of old high school friends, relatives and friends gathered to greet him. "I just expected to see my mother and stepfather, but lo and behold!"

On the dining room table, he found a large frosted cake with the words "Welcome Back Home, Son!"

Before he sat down, his high school friend Mark Zamorra thrust a cold beer into his hand, a drink he hadn't tasted in eight months.

Ytuarte, wearing a long-sleeved brown shirt and bluejeans, spoke of the people and sights he witnessed in Bilad, Iraq. Ytuarte, an information systems operator analyst, said one of his jobs was guarding Iraqi people working for the Army.

"A lot of the people were glad we were there," he said. "But then there were times we didn't know if they were behind the mortar attacks on us at night."

He said most of the people he worked with were genuine. Several of his co-workers gave him a mattress to place on his cot.

In his e-mails and phone calls, he left out details about injured soldiers. He said it is a common routine for people to drive up to the compound perimeter and make threatening gestures toward tower guards.

But when he talked of having soldiers still in Iraq, he stopped to gather his thoughts.

"I'm just glad to be home. It's been difficult," Ytuarte said, pausing to fight back tears. "I've got a large mix of emotions. I had to leave early, and my troops are on my mind often."

Handing his brother a tissue, Santiago said: "We still meditate and pray for those who lost their lives. Every moment, it's in the back of your head."

Ytuarte's wife said e-mails, phone calls and a post support group helped her deal with her husband's absence. While her husband was deployed, she avoided the news on television.

"I'm just happy he's back, safe and in one piece," she said, watching their youngest daughter, 18-month-old Alexandria, wave miniature flags above her head.

With a smile, Ytuarte's mother complimented Rosa for her strength in her son's absence.

"I feel like my daughter—in-law is as much a hero as he is," his mother said. "She kept the house in order all of this time. Even though my son is home, my heart still hurts for our children we're losing over there."

Ytuarte pulled a silver cross, a lucky charm Santiago gave him for protection, from his wallet. "I never went anywhere without it," Ytuarte said, rubbing the cross.

"We used to fight all of the time," Santiago said. "I never thought our paths would bring us where we are now."

Ytuarte said he's at a crossroads trying to decide whether to re-enlist or try something new.

I've got plenty of reasons to stay," Ytuarte said, "and plenty of reasons to go."

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