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Hundreds Welcome Home Desert Storm Reservists in Encino Ceremony : Peace: Marines had been in Okinawa eight months. Rocketdyne workers who went overseas are also feted.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The irony was almost too cruel for Gene and Betty Stricklin.

For the eight months that 21-year-old Tony Stricklin served overseas as part of Operation Desert Storm, it was the sight of those ubiquitous yellow ribbons that kept the couple tied in heart and mind to their reservist son. But at the Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Training Center in Encino on Wednesday, it was a long swathe of yellow ribbon that kept parents and son apart.

“You want to run to him and hug him,” said Betty Stricklin, 47, sounding a slight note of frustration as her stepson finally came into view at the front of a formation marching down Victory Boulevard. “But you can’t.”

The Stricklins had driven from Barstow to give their son a warm homecoming, complete with other relatives and Sandy the dog. Beneath a hot sun and cloudless skies, they joined hundreds of others who jostled, angled and leaned against a stretch of yellow ribbon separating them from the 220 local reservists just returned from active duty on the island of Okinawa.

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Finally, after remarks from dignitaries and a rousing rendition of the Marine hymn punctuated by loud “Hoo-rahs!”, the moment for reunions came. The yellow ribbon crumpled to the ground, laughter rang out and tears flowed--tinged with thanks that the Headquarters and Service Company of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, did not get shipped out to the Middle East as expected.

“We were scheduled to go to Saudi Arabia,” said Sgt. Beatriz Ochoa, 26, smiling as she balanced her young nephew on her hip. “We were the second unit to go over, but they only took the first.”

“It was tough for all of us. We knew that we were going there, and it was constant training,” said Staff Sgt. Joe Sandoval, a California Highway Patrol officer at Ft. Tejon who found separation from his two young children difficult--and phone calls from Okinawa expensive. “There were so many rumors. We just knew we had to train, and that’s when you saw the seriousness of everyone.”

The company was activated Dec. 8 and left for Okinawa on Christmas Eve to replace a unit that had been dispatched to the Middle East. On Wednesday, exactly one year after President Bush ordered thousands of U. S. troops to Saudi Arabia to counter the Iraqi threat, the soldiers landed at Los Angeles International Airport before being bused to Encino.

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Half a dozen miles away in Canoga Park, other Desert Storm returnees were being honored. Rocketdyne, a division of Rockwell International, held a ceremony to recognize six employees who served in the Gulf War.

“We’re extremely proud . . . that they call Rocketdyne their home company, and we’re very glad to have them home,” Jeff Charney, Rocketdyne’s director of communications, told about 100 people gathered for the event.

Sgt. Michael Pevny, an industrial engineer sent to the Persian Gulf in December as an avionics technician, said the memory of one of his first nights in Saudi Arabia has been seared into his mind.

“I’ll never forget this God-awful siren,” he said. “The siren went off and the lights went on. They were launching Scuds at us. We had to throw on our gas masks.”

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After an announcement of a possible chemical attack came over the loudspeakers, “all we could do was sit there and wait,” said Pevny, who returned to the United States at the end of March.

Air Force Lt. Col. Stephen Gray, who oversees defense contract work at Rocketdyne, congratulated Pevny and his reservist colleagues for a job well done.

“You went over to fight, and fight you did,” he told them. “You’re all heroes in the true sense of the word.”


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