Back from the war: Kent soldier gets a hero's welcome home

John Paquette prepares to hug his grandfather

John Paquette prepares to hug his grandfather

For John Paquette, it's good to be home.

After a year at Camp Prosperity in the heart of the Green Zone in Baghdad, John, 25, returned to his West Hill home this past week to discover his whole family waiting and the entire cul de sac filled with friends and neighbors, all of whom were waving flags and cheering.

With “Burma Shave-” style signs stretching up the block to welcome him, John smiled and waved before making his way to grandparents, who were waiting at the foot of the driveway for him.

Seated in his wheelchair waiting for John was Leon Paquette, a World War II veteran and John's inspiration for joining the Washington National Guard.

“Seeing my grandpa was definitely emotional,” John said Friday. “The Army prepares you to get physically strong, but nothing prepares you for a hug like that.”

After a year in Iraq and five days in lockdown in Wisconsin, John has finally come home and his family can now exhale.

“It's fantastic,” said father Dale Paquette, who set up the surprise celebration and picked his son up at Fort Lewis. “Now I can kind of get back on track.

“It's great to have him home,” he said.

The morning after his return, John said he woke up at his own pace and savored his freedom from the military in a simple, yet wholly satisfying way: He didn't shave.

“It felt so good not to have to go to the bathroom and shave,” he said with a broad smile.

The cooler temperatures, the lack of a constant sewage smell and the absence of sirens and gunfire are also a nice change from his years in Iraq. Not to mention not having to beware of roadside bombs or explosives dropped from overpasses.

“It's such a great feeling knowing I don't have to watch my back anymore or worry about something falling on me and blowing up,” John said.

However, not all the training melts away so easily. While driving to a friend's on his first night back in the States, John said he saw a box in the road and his training kicked in as he took a wide berth around what in Kent is litter, but which in Iraq could be an explosive.

Smiling about it a day later, John shook it off.

“For a full year we were paranoid about looking for things on the side of the road,” he said with a shrug, adding once again that it is nice to be home.

As a member of the Washington National Guard's 81st Brigade, Bravo Troop, 1-303rd Cavalry, John spent the past year on diplomatic security duties, accompanying State Department officials and other high-level guests around Iraq.

Though life in the walled-off Green Zone is fairly secure, John said things change quickly once you get outside of the protective walls.

“As soon as you hit the Red Zone you were open for an IED attack,” John said, using the acronym for an Improvised Explosive Device, used by insurgents to attack Coalition soldiers.

In Baghdad, any section of the city outside the heavily fortified Green Zone is considered the Red Zone, where attacks can come at any time.

“It's extremely dangerous anytime you went out in the Red Zone,” John said. “We tried to limit how long we were in the Red Zone.”

During his time in country, however, John said he and his unit were very lucky and were not attacked, despite working security for foreign dignitaries.

However, John had to remain ready and gunfire was a near-daily occurrence in the city around him, something that took some time to get accustomed. Not all of the gunfire was enemy fire, though, making it even more confusing. According to John, the lack of traffic lights led Iraqis to control intersections by firing their weapons into the air to announce when to stop and when to go.

But the biggest threat, John said, was “complacency,” of becoming so used to the daily grind that they would not be prepared if an actual attack came.

Well, that and the heat, of course.

“The heat was excruciating,” he said.

Where Kent broiled under 100-degree temperatures last month, John said his days in Baghdad regularly reached 115 degrees and it even got as hot as 135 while he was there.

Add about 50 pounds of gear and John said there were days where he would drink a gallon of water every hour and still feel dehydrated under the searing desert sun.

With missions ranging from one to seven hours each day, John said he and his unit had a lot of time to kill during the year in Iraq. Gifts and calls from home were a nice distraction, but often were a double-edged sword, reminding John not only how much he was loved, but also how far he was from his family.

Though he could call home whenever he wanted, he would sometimes wait for several weeks to call and talk to his dad.

“The more I called, the more it reminded me of home and the days drew out longer,” John said.

Even while talking, the nature of John's mission in Iraq made some talk difficult, with John not able to discuss anything unless his father had seen it already on television.

“It definitely took a toll on my old man,” John said, noting that his dad's hair had gone gray while he was away.

Though he'd had training before heading over, John said Iraq was not quite what he expected: it was actually safer than he thought. Though the threat was constant, John said that while inside the Green Zone, he learned to relax and was even able to get a good night's sleep in the air-conditioned room he shared with another soldier.

With a war raging around them, John said the city of Baghdad is in bad shape, with nearly every building showing scars from the war, either bullet holes or missing parts due to explosives.

Even the former palace around which Camp Prosperity is based was damaged by battle, though it was still “absolutely amazing” to see, John said.

“A dictator used to live here one day and the next day, he's not there anymore,” he said.

The toughest part of being away, however was just that: being away. It's the longest John has ever been away from family, a family that is very close-knit.

“It's not easy to ever get used to,” he said. “Christmas was one of the longest days of my life.”

It was the support from his family and friends that helped him make it through the ling year away.

“That carried me through that deployment,” he said.

Now that he is home, John is taking a month off and will then head back to his job as a maintenance worker for the City of Kent, whom he said were also very supportive during his deployment.

For Dale, seeing his soon back home safe and sound is major relief, though his feelings of pride in what his son has accomplished are by no means diminished.

“I think what he did was remarkable,” Dale said.

Though war tends to change a man, Dale said John hasn't changed so much as matured during his deployment.

“He sees things differently now, maybe little things are more important,” Dale said.

Though his six years in the Guard were up in July, John said he is on stop-loss and has two more years of inactive reserve to fulfill, though there is no indication he will be headed back to a war zone.

So what is the hardest part about readjusting to civilian life? Interestingly enough, it is the same thing most people have the most difficulty adjusting to: traffic.

“The first thing I noticed right off the bat was traffic laws,” said John, who in Iraq got around in a Mine Resistant Ambush Protect vehicle (known as an MRAP) which he said would part native traffic like the Red Sea and would not stop until it reached its destination.

“We get here and I have stop lights, stop signs...” he said, shaking his head.

Oh well, it's a small price to pay for being home.

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