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Soldiers, families unwind, socialize at get-together

S.L. Hilton hosts party for units back from Iraq

Published: Thursday, March 11 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

Cpt. Scott Carson of the 141st Military Intelligence Battalion and daughter Bethany are part of a pool party Wednesday welcoming home troops.

Jeremy Harmon, Deseret Morning News

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Greg Cassat and Barton Jeffs stood beside a kiosk that held kids games, sipping soft drinks and chatting. Stephen Cassat, 2 1/2, buzzed up and his dad gave him a drink from his cola can.

That may not seem like a newsworthy event. Yet it was the casualness of the scene, the everyday feeling of a couple of guys in shirtsleeves talking quietly, that was so enchanting to those involved.

Cassat and Jeffs are soldiers with the Utah National Guard's 141st Military Intelligence Battalion. Most of the unit returned to Utah in January and in late February, after more than a year away from home, serving in Kuwait and Iraq. This event on Wednesday was the first time they could get together and socialize since the 141st was scattered to the four corners of Iraq.

The scene was a ballroom in the Hilton Salt Lake City Center, 255 S. West Temple. After a barbecue there, unit members and their families were to shift to the hotel's pool for a frolic in the warm water.

Cassat and Jeffs were talking about the fact that nobody yet could give a good overview of what the 141st experienced in Iraq, because the unit was stationed in many parts of that country.

"We've had people in every major subordinate command . . . from north to south, and from east to west," Cassat, a captain in the Guard and a resident of Salt Lake City, told the Deseret Morning News.

"There are hundreds of stories, there really are. Lots and lots of people have done really amazing things."

While they were apart, members of the 141st still kept in touch. Cassat has heard stories about other members of the unit's experiences when "bombs could have gone off and didn't go off" and about rocket-propelled grenades that, thankfully, did not ignite.

Now it's nice to get together again, he said. "It's nice to have the roar die down a little bit," and meet with fellow soldiers and families in a quiet setting. He enjoyed the fact that the get-together was casual, without uniforms.

"Oh, it is wonderful" to have him home, said Mindy Cassat, his wife. Stephen is relearning how to "share the domain" with his Dad, she added.

Jeffs, also from Salt Lake City, is a sergeant first class who returned on Jan. 21. "You know, getting the guys together is a nice thing," he said, "but I'm more impressed with the hotel reaching out and saying, 'We recognize you.' "

When he was on the last leg home, flying from Colorado to Salt Lake City in a civilian airliner, an announcement came over the plane's loudspeaker that a group of the 141st was aboard. Other passengers gave them a standing ovation, and that was touching.

Then when the troops got off the airplane, Jeffs said his son Caleb, 5, "ran right to me."

"I'm still adjusting" to life at home, he added. The day before, he was driving and forgot which way to turn on the freeway. He had to drive the long way around the reach his destination.

Then, there's such a simple thing as water, he said. In Iraq, they drank bottled water because they could be sure that was pure. Now Jeffs appreciates "just the ability to go to the tap and get a cup of water."

Even the snow and cold of late winter in Utah were a nice change from the scorching Middle East. Jeffs said using the snowblower "used to be a chore. Now it's a pleasure."

"I think for the most part we're fairly adjusted," said Tracy Jeffs, his wife. She added that sometimes the deployment was hard on Caleb, and he would cry for his father.

"Since I've been home — for now! — he hates to leave my side," Jeffs commented. Maybe as a proof that the family is adjusting to its reunion, on this afternoon Caleb had gone off to check out the games the hotel was providing for the soldiers' children.

The person most behind the celebration was the director of sales and marketing for the Hilton Salt Lake City Center, Gregg Lofgran. A resident of West Jordan and a major in the 141st, he wanted to do something to welcome the troops back.

Enlisted soldiers and junior officers were sent overseas, but the headquarters company stayed here. After their return, Lofgran realized this was around the time of year when the Hilton will do a community project, and a good one would be a barbecue and pool party for returnees and families.

"It's good to have them back," he said. "It's amazing. They all came back, and they're all healthy."

"It's just very pleasant" to be home after almost 13 months, said Staff Sgt. Greg Bolton. (By coincidence, three of the soldiers interviewed were named Greg or Gregg.)

The biggest surprise, he said, was discovering "my children had grown."

Annette Bolton, his wife, explained they changed "from little girls to young women" while their dad was away.

The Boltons are looking forward, the sergeant said, to "just lots of family activities together."


E-mail: bau@desnews.com

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