Jim Hummel, RI Spotlight: Welcome Home

WARWICK — In the military, you often have to improvise.

So a contingent of active and retired Rhode Island National Guardsmen got creative when the coronavirus threatened to derail a welcome-home gathering they had planned for Master Sgt. Kristen Brodeur, who returned home Friday from a six-month deployment to Iraq.

“When Kristen texted me the other day and said no one from the unit could see her because she was being quarantined, a few of us got together and we said, ‘Oh no, that’s not acceptable,’” said Denise Detonnancourt, a retired chief master sergeant who used to be Brodeur’s boss.

They made signs and planned to welcome Brodeur back — from a safe distance — Thursday night at T.F. Green Airport. But a series of delays that turned Brodeur’s trip home into a four-day journey from Iraq to the United States via Germany forced them to change plans.

When Brodeur arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Thursday evening, the earliest connecting flight to Rhode Island wasn’t until the next afternoon. So she rented a car and drove overnight, with a 45-minute nap at a rest area along the way, before pulling into the driveway of her Warwick home at 5:45 Friday morning.

Not to be deterred, more than a dozen people — at Detonnancourt’s invitation — showed up Saturday morning outside her house, with signs and a coronavirus survival kit that included toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wine, fresh chicken and a bottle of Southern Comfort.

Brodeur took it all in from the front yard, with her 12-year-old son Luke, resisting the urge to give everyone a big hug.

“At first I was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’” Brodeur said. “I wasn’t surprised that they turned out, but that they actually came here, it was great. I didn’t think I was going to get this big a surprise. This is wonderful,” she added.

Brodeur wasn’t supposed to be deployed. But last fall, another Guardsman who worked under her was injured during training, so she stepped in for him. That meant leaving Luke behind just after he had begun sixth grade. “I had my entire family taking care of everything for me while I was gone,” she said.

Luke went to live with his father, while Brodeur’s boyfriend and parents took care of her dog and the house. She missed Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s -- and Luke’s entire middle school wrestling season -- keeping in touch by video.

Brodeur had been deployed once before, when she enlisted in the Air Force out of high school in the late 1990s and was sent to Kuwait. But this was different, leaving a child and family behind.

As her return to the United States got closer, the rapid spread of the coronavirus consumed much of the news she was receiving at Camp Taji in Iraq, where she was stationed. Brodeur said that Iraq had relatively few coronavirus cases, but that she had to fly through Germany with a layover at Ramstein Air Base. “The whole entire world was being quarantined. All the countries were being shut down,” she said.

She had planned to leave Tuesday, but was delayed when the military waited to send an additional 40 people home on her flight. The late start meant another delay in Germany, while the flight crew had to rest.

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, where the National Guard has a long tradition of sending off, and welcoming home, those deployed, Gov. Gina Raimondo was ordering some of the tightest restrictions in the country.

They included the deployment of the Rhode Island National Guard to help monitor cars coming from New York on Route 95 and travelers arriving at the airport, train and bus stations.

“They usually try to get a contingent of people out there to welcome you home,” said retired Master Sgt. Dave Ransom, who worked with Brodeur at Quonset. “Right now they’re so busy, but we’re not going to let one of our own fall through the cracks.”

Ransom was on the text chain that kept everyone updated about the changes in Brodeur’s itinerary.

“With this virus, things have completely changed, so we were going to meet at the airport, that was our plan. But obviously we had to change things up and now we’re here at her house,” Ransom said Saturday morning, as he watched the celebration unfold. “That’s not going to stop us. She’s one of our own and we love her. We’re going to be there for her.”

As for Broduer’s own military-ordered two-week quarantine? “I am looking forward to spending the next 14 days at home with my son.”

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