More than 2,000 Massachusetts National Guard soldiers served in Iraq during the eight-year war. This year, the last 413 came home as the United States has pulled out nearly all of its troops.
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — A tall Christmas tree stands in the entryway of the Montero home in a recently built development here in New Bedford. Usually it’s Sgt. 1st Class Jose Montero himself who puts up the decorations.
But, he says, "When I came home and walked in and saw the tree was done, I was pleased, and when she told me that the kids stepped up to the plate and put the tree up, I was very happy. It was like a welcome gesture that I felt."
Montero’s three children come out to say hello. The youngest, a precocious 3-year-old named Gianna, shows me her favorite ornaments: the genie bottle, the snowman and the candy cane.
Jose Montero joined the Army National Guard in 1981 after high school to help pay for college because his immigrant parents from Cape Verde couldn’t afford it. He was deployed just after Sept. 11 for the first time to protect Plymouth's nuclear power plant. About two years later he was sent on a mission to Afghanistan. And last January he left for his third deployment, this time to Iraq.
"When we left they kept telling us we are going to go and perform our mission and halfway through our mission we started to hear we’d be the last to perform the mission," he says.
Montero worked on radar base protection at Joint Base Balad, which used to be called Anaconda. It was one of the hot spots at the height of the war when it was the headquarters for the U.S. military. Part of his mission was to train Iraqi soldiers to take over and the other part was to shut down the base. Montero says as the defenses came down, he became close to several Iraqi children — playing soccer with them and answering their questions about the United States. He shows me a picture.
"This young man," Montero says, "he had a three-piece suit on. It was really interesting to us. He’s adorable, he was. He wanted to talk to folks, he wanted to make sure we played with him."
Back at home, his own children heard President Obama promise to bring all the troops home by Christmas. They couldn’t believe it. Fourteen-year-old Victoria says when her history teacher played the president’s speech in class, she had mixed feelings.
"I really don’t know, I don’t know what to make of it," she says. "Because just 'cause he says they are coming home for Christmas didn’t necessarily mean that my dad would be home."
It only became real in October when her dad called home with his cellphone when he landed in the U.S. His wife, Darlease, got the call.
"I still remember — the kids will tell you — I just broke down and cried," she recalls. "This huge weight just came off my shoulder, came of my shoulder knowing he was home."
"You are tearing up again, you don’t realize."
Darlease stops to take a tissue offered by her 3-year-old. Gianna saw her mother cry a lot over her dad — so much so that she was angry and refused to speak to him when he came home because "he made momma cry."
Jose had to spend two more months at an Army base in Texas before coming home in December. His son, Gregory, 12, remembers seeing him at the airport.
"I just felt scared most of the time knowing that there’s a chance he might not come back, but once he was there in the airport ... so relieved, knowing that he was home for good," Gregory says.
Montero is eligible for retirement after 24 1/2 years in the National Guard. He has a full-time job working for the state Department of Children and Families, overseeing programs that support families with troubled kids. He knows he’s lucky to have a job because so many veterans are unemployed.
Montero was among the last soldiers stationed in Iraq, and that made his departure special.
"We all made a T-shirt that said: 'We turned off the lights at Joint Base Balad.' "
Turning off the lights at his base and turning toward the future. Jose and Darlease are hopeful about what it holds for Iraq.
"It’s going to take time, it’s going to take time to build an Iraq that we would like to see," he says.
His wife adds that she is praying for the Iraqis "that there is something that will make tomorrow a better day and that all this was not for naught, that they do come out better than this."
As the family gathers around the Christmas tree, Sgt. Jose Montero wants to convey one last message: "I want to wish all the families and soldiers who have come home, Happy Holidays.
"And also, let’s not forget that we still have a war going on in Afghanistan and want to hopefully send a blessing to all the soldiers over there that they will come home safe and enjoy the holidays with their families."
He will with his.
This program aired on December 23, 2011.