A Thanksgiving to remember for a multisoldier family

The roses were quickly forgotten.

When the planes touched down, they became a flag of battered stems, waved frantically, to welcome back the last of the Vasquez family platoon for at least a few days' break from military service. "Rosanna!" her husband shouted so loudly that his voice croaked. "Rosanna!"

With Rosanna, her brothers Martin and Francisco, and her husband, Mark Brown, all in the military, constantly coming and going in the US antiterror campaign, the extended family had not been together since January, 2001. When the Vasquez family sits down to turkey and tamales Thursday, it will be the first Thanksgiving reunion in 13 years.

Against the somber background of growing doubts about a difficult war, the return of the 101st Airborne from Iraq to Fort Campbell, Ky., was a shining moment. It notched a success for the Army, struggling to get troops home within a year of their deployments. Just as important, the Vasquez reunion served as a reminder of how many military families, especially those with multiple enlistees, overcome distance and danger to make the most of their brief moments together.

"This is very, very special to have them all back safe and in one place," says patriarch Francisco Ruiz Vasquez in red snakeskin cowboy boots, who emigrated from Mexico to settle his family in Gardena, Calif., in 1968.

The Army doesn't keep statistics on the number of families with multiple members enlisted, but they are plentiful. "I'm constantly surprised by how many multiple-soldier families there are out there," says Army Maj. Jeff Allen. "But we need more of them."

Multiple honors, sacrifices for some

Of course, these are also the families who bear the brunt of sacrifice, whether in terms of fatalities, as depicted in the 1998 movie "Saving Private Ryan," or simply in terms of lost time together, as in the case of the Vasquezes.

Capt. Martin Vasquez, the second oldest of the Vasquez siblings and the first to join the Army, spent his preteen days playing soldier, his father says, and his mother hesitated before signing a release that allowed him to join at 17. Rosanna, who attended Stanford for a time, signed up next, and is now a 1st lieutenant and physician's assistant. Their brother, Francisco, is a staff sergeant and medic, who returned from Iraq in October. Her husband, Master Sgt. Brown, is a 21-year Army veteran. Among them, they share four bronze stars and two air medals (for meritorious service in flight).

Why the Vasquez children signed up

Not a soldier himself, their father says he's not sure, exactly, why so many of his brood joined the military. Patriotism, service, and opportunity were certainly among them. But he says it's also a sense of thankfulness for the opportunities that America has given them.

When the procession of returned soldiers moved into the hangar to dozens of hand-painted signs and shouting family members, Francisco, waiting in the crowd, started a chant: "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" His brother, Martin, joined in.

As of Monday, their parents, Francisco Ruiz and Rosalia, did not know that their children had nominated them for the Army's Freedom Team Salute. The award, which recognizes the sacrifices of all members of military families, was due to be presented Friday. The children have decorated the plaque with their own medals.

A patriotic story for schoolchildren

"I came to be part of this, but also to take it back to my students in Los Angeles, to tell them this story of this family," says Juan Vasquez, an English teacher at Grant High School in Los Angeles and the only son who didn't join the military. "I just think it really shows the patriotism within the family itself."

Raucous homecomings, like the one Monday at Fort Campbell, have become a familiar sight. Fighting fatigue and shaking off desert dust, soldiers hold their formation until, anticlimactically, they're allowed to stand down. The band stops playing and the mingling begins, the kissing, the reunions, the intimate whispers.

Rosanna, wearing fatigues and her hair in a tight bun, kept her composure, but her father wept after squeezing through the throngs to embrace his returned daughter.

For military families in a time of war, these are brief respites. For the Vasquezes, it has seemed that as soon as one came back, another one left.

Brown has been to Iraq multiple times. Martin is a veteran of the military campaign in Afghanistan.

A single, brief encounter in Iraq

This year, three of them served in Iraq simultaneously, only a helicopter's ride apart. But only Francisco, a medic, and Rosanna, a doctor's assistant, met once to exchange medical supplies. "For one reason or another, people are always in different places," says Juan Vasquez.

Brown says he's been away from home for more than half of the life of his 6-year-old daughter, Elisa. But that will soon change. He retires in two weeks. "I'm done," he says.

The value of this week's get-together is not lost on the Vasquezes, who say they manage to stay close despite the distances through e-mails, phone calls, and jotted notes.

At times, they were able to get parts of the family together, even though it's spread out between San Antonio; Fresno, Calif.; Gardena, Calif.; and Clarksville, Tenn. When their mother, Rosalia, was not well in 2003, the children would come and go, sometimes missing each other by minutes, says Francisco Ruiz, their father.

"It's a reminder for them that they are blessed to be together and they take advantage of each moment together," says Sonia Vasquez, Martin's wife. "They are spread apart, but they are close still."

All in all, including another sister, Gabriela, and assorted husbands, wives, nieces, and nephews, there will be 17 for Thanksgiving Thursday. Family members say it's likely to be one long grace.

"It will be the best Thanksgiving ever," says Rosanna.

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