Letters on a Sunday
B-Day, err, Baby D-Day

How to Welcome Home a Marine - Los Altos, CA, Style

Richard H. sent this story to me tpnight. It's a great story about a homecoming for a Marine in northern California. It's a subscription only article so I'll post the whole thing.

Surprise party for hometown Marine
By Sean Webby - Mercury News

It was supposed to be a sleep-late suburban Saturday for Marine Lance Cpl. Ben Wetzel, with no surprises around the corner.

The 21-year-old was at home on a rare leave from Iraq, savoring relaxing moments without his weapon and no sand blowing in his face. His only mission: a quick trip with his mom to downtown Los Altos so she could buy a 6 1/2-inch horse bit.

Then, following a squad car, she made an unexpected left on Valencia Drive.

There were flags everywhere. ``The Marines' Hymn'' was playing from a speaker on the flatbed of a decorated 1978 Chevrolet truck, parked in the middle of the street. And there was his dad, his stepmother, his grinning girlfriend, Kristen Matilainen, plus his buddies and about 50 others, all cheering. There were red, white and blue balloons and beer and a battalion of gas grills, already smoking.

It was official Ben Wetzel Day on his high school sweetheart's street. It was a homecoming.

``You got me, Mom. I hope I don't cry,'' he said to his happy mom, Roxy Montana, a horse rancher from Hollister who wasn't even sure there is such a thing as a 6 1/2-inch bit.

Iraq was not a divisive or controversial issue at this block party.

This was about a local hero with a Ronnie Lott San Francisco 49ers jersey and a Purple Heart for being injured by shrapnel in combat. And he was getting handshakes and hugs of thanks and congratulations.

John Kells, a neighbor and close family friend of Wetzel's girlfriend, came up with the idea of the surprise block party about six weeks ago.

``It's just further recognizing what these young people are doing for us,'' Kells said. ``We live our lives here and don't have any worries whatsoever.''

When he learned Wetzel had returned to Camp Pendleton in San Diego last week, Kells began conspiring with Montana and Matilainen and even with the local police. The plan was for the police to intercept the young Marine and his mother downtown.

Los Altos police Sgt. Mark Macaulay, an Air Force veteran, saw the truck and -- as planned -- pulled up with his lights flashing and led the truck on to Valencia.

Wetzel said he was positive his mother was about to get ticketed for a broken taillight, or for ignoring the police and the fire engine that mysteriously had pulled up behind them.

Montana said she was relieved the plan went off -- and that her son was standing on a sunny Los Altos street where she could hug him.

``I've got six children, and you never stop wanting to know where they all are, whose house they are at,'' she said, ``But when Ben went off to become a man'' in a terror-filled world, ``it's been unfathomable how I feel.''

Wetzel has been in the Marines since 2001, when he graduated from Los Altos High School, where he played football and ran cross-country.

When he told his parents about his decision to enlist, they weren't surprised. Wetzel was gung-ho about most things he did. As a child, he was as intense about eating bugs and sketching army men fighting monsters as he was in high school, smashing the kickoff wedge on the football team.

Wetzel was sent to Iraq as a member of the 5th Division, 1st Marines, Alpha Company, where he was in the first major fighting during the capture of Baghdad, and in some of the most recent heavy fighting in Al-Fallujah.

Wetzel looked around at the people on the bustling block -- the mayor of Los Altos, a retired 49ers receiver, a lot of kids looking at him with their mouths open -- and said it was important for everyone to know what he and his fellow soldiers were doing over there.

``We are there to do a good service, to bring freedom, to fight terror,'' Wetzel said. ``We are not there killing civilians.''

Keli Forsman stood off to the side of the festivities, her hand on her child's carriage. She said she didn't know Wetzel.

``The war in Iraq seems so abstract and far away,'' Forsman said. ``When you see someone like him, it makes it more real.''

Ben Wetzel Day...cool.