Nevada Guard Members Home For The Holiday

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Three times, military doctors tried to send Sgt. Henry Lujan home.

Three times, Lujan refused. He figured that if his buddies in Nevada National Guard's 72nd Military Police Company couldn't go home, neither would he.

Lujan was one of 86 citizen soldiers who returned to a joyful homecoming at Nellis Air Force Base on Wednesday - in time for Thanksgiving on Thursday.

Seven soldiers flew on to Carson City, where Steven Leonard threw his arms around Sgt. Tanya Leonard, 30, from Fernley, laughed, and said he was looking forward to a good meal.

But first, Tanya Leonard said, "I'm going to ... soak in the bathtub for a while and make sure the water doesn't drain out."

The holiday at home came as a surprise to the soldiers, who learned about it before boarding a plane in Kuwait on Tuesday.

After a stop at Fort Lewis, Wash., they boarded a C-130 Hercules cargo plane for Nellis, where they were greeted with cheers, tears and hugs.

"We're all home and we're all back alive, and that's the most important thing we could ask for," said Spc. Michael Roe, clinging to his 5-year-old daughter, Kaitlynn.

No soldiers from the 72nd died, but several were wounded in attacks in Iraq. Ten, including Lujan, won Purple Hearts for combat injuries.

"It was scary," Lujan said, recalling mortar and rocket-propelled grenade attacks in seven months guarding the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. "Two soldiers died in our back yard."

The unit has been home just five months since being deployed following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The soldiers spent a year guarding the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., and were reactivated in February for the war in Iraq.

Lujan said he'll take the return to civilian life one day at a time as he returns to his family and his job with the Las Vegas city Department of Neighborhood Services.

The soldiers survived some close calls since going to the Middle East in May.

The first came June 27 when their 2 1/2-ton troop carrier was rocked by a roadside bomb. The explosion threw Spc. Brian Robinson from the truck and injured several other soldiers, including Lujan.

Robinson, of Henderson, was sent to Fort Lewis for physical therapy.

On Aug. 19, a Humvee drove over a land mine. Sgt. Jeremiah McLoughlin was knocked unconscious and peppered with shrapnel. He was sent home for treatment.

The unit also endured a Sept. 20 mortar attack on their compound. Two soldiers from another unit were killed, Lujan said.

Despite the near-misses, Lujan would not leave his fellow troops to go home.

During his unit's deployment in California, he injured his right knee in a training mishap. He was rehabilitating when his unit was reactivated for Iraq, so he ended the rehabilitation eight months early and went to three doctors before one cleared him for duty, he said.

He kept secret until a few weeks ago that he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer in early 2002 and that the disease was in remission.

"I pretty much had to fight my way into the battle," Lujan said, one arm wrapped around sons Damien, 13, and Devin, 9.

After the holiday, Lujan and Leonard and the rest of their unit will head back to Fort Lewis to demobilize. About a week later, they will return to civilian lives.

Military rules say they cannot be sent to the Middle East for another five years.

Doug Fry Sr. waited for the plane to land and said he was glad to have his son, Spc. Doug Fry Jr., back home.

"I prayed for him," the father said. "I guess he did the same thing, and kept his head down. And he made it through."