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Marks Receives Hero’s Welcome Home

More than 100 of Sgt. Sean Marks’ friends and family members came from New York, North Carolina and Massachusetts, as well as around the area, to welcome Marks home from the war in Iraq.

From early Sunday afternoon through Monday evening, dozens of cars and a handful of motorcycles lined Sorrell Avenue in Potomac for the celebration.

Children swam in the pool, adults roamed the backyard and the house, and Marks, 33, stopped to talk to those who were celebrating his return. Everybody had plenty of questions about his tour in Iraq.

“Basically everybody that sent me care packages and letters came down for this,” said Marks, who grew up in Potomac, attending Potomac Elementary and Cabin John Middle School, then Walter Johnson High School, where he graduated in 1988. “It was kind of a surprise, because I don’t like to be the center of attention.”

But his family was too proud and thankful to have Marks home to let the event pass quietly.

“I think it’s good for people to know that there are people from Potomac who are over there,” said Marks’ sister Tabitha Marks. “You come from a very well-known, wealthy suburb … but you’re sticking it out. You’re doing it for your country.”

“I only came from New York, but for my nephew, I’d have come from Italy,” said Marks’ uncle, Bill Young from Spring Valley, N.Y. “He’s one of the real heroes. … The guys they sent over there, the things they did for this country … they stood up for us; they stood up, and I’m proud my nephew stood up.”

Cynthia Curtis, Marks’ sister, helped organize the homecoming welcome. “Everybody responded” after Curtis posted information about the party on a family Web site.

MARKS SERVED IN THE 299th Engineer Company of the U.S. Army Reserve, a multi-role bridge-building unit based out of Fort Belvoir, Va.

The 299th was stationed on the Iraq-Kuwait border until the war started, then was quickly deployed in Objective Peach, defending an important bridge over the Euphrates River, and standing prepared to build a replacement bridge if it was destroyed.

There were attempts to detonate the bridge, and there were several times when Marks’ unit came under fire, he said.

Entering small villages also created tense situations. “Most of the people were friendly. Primarily, most of the people wanted food, or to talk to Americans,” Marks said. “The bad news is that, not speaking the language, I couldn’t tell if they were friend or foe. … I always had to be on my guard.”

“When driving through certain villages, you would always have to watch out for small kids on the side of the road,” Marks said, because there were situations where the children were told to distract U.S. soldiers while snipers fired at them. “At that point, you’re an open target for them to shoot at.”

Beyond Objective Peach, the 299th moved into Massoul, then patrolled a route in Tikrit, and afterward ran line-haul missions, transporting supplies between Iraq and Kuwait.

“The very first day the war started, that was a very scary moment for me,” said Marks. “Crossing into Iraq, we could see some of the devastation from the missile launches. … To me, that was almost unreal. I never thought I would ever see something like that and be in it.”

The war was the first time Marks had been stationed abroad. During one patrolling drive through a local city, Marks’ unit found an Iraqi girl who had been hit by shrapnel. The medic originally sent to the scene was male, and was told that due to religious beliefs, the girl could only be treated by a female medic. Marks’ unit had to radio for a female doctor.

OF EVERYTHING Marks missed from home, it was family and friends he missed the most. Soldiers always had access to postal service through the military, but e-mail and phone access were limited.

“At my church, everybody was praying for him to come back,” said Marks’ uncle Bill Young, who communicated with Young through e-mail.

A Cub Scout troop adopted Marks while he was fighting in Iraq, and he and his fellow troops received letters and care packages regularly. One specialist had a mother who works for the Peeps candy company, and sent the troops 300 marshmallow Peeps rabbits during Easter season. Food and central air conditioning, as temperatures routinely hit 140 degrees, were other things he missed from home.

“I was on pins and needles the whole time, especially during the time you could not converse with him,” said Marks’ mother Marie Marks.

Cynthia Curtis added, “I tried to block out as much of [the news] as possible, because it made you scared."

MARKS’ RETURN WAS a surprise to his mother. Soldiers received a weeklong debriefing about returning to civilian life, and those who returned in Marks’ group came in one of two groups.

Marks returned home a week ago to the neighborhood where he grew up. He will remain in Potomac for the upcoming months, but is thinking about moving to Boston.

Marks’ sister Cynthia Curtis also received a welcome surprise last week. “When I came home, I turned the corner, and he was sitting right there in the living room. … My son wouldn’t let him out of his sight that first night.”

“Something was a little different that you couldn’t put your hand on,” Marie Marks said, and for the first week Marks was home, “all he wanted to do was sleep, take care of his things, get into his groove, and get his life moving along.”

Marks has now been in the military for five years, in a career that began with the 270th Military Police Brigade, then went into the Primary Leadership Development Course, becoming a non-commissioned officer upon its completion. He completed his tour in Iraq, but is still on active duty for two more years.

“Hopefully they won’t call me up,” said Marks. “But I would be honored to fight for my country again.”

“He’s a hero to me; he did something I couldn’t do,” said Marks’ brother-in-law Travis Curtis. “I feel proud that he is the guy he is.”

“It’s been great. He smiles, everybody’s happy,” said Marks’ aunt Dorothy Bumphus, who came from Chapel Hill, N.C. to welcome Marks home. “Everyone was praying for him, and our church is still praying for him and everyone else over there.”

“He’s a better person now,” said Marks’ sister Cynthia Marks. “You can just tell he appreciates life more.”