Chuck Beckley, Associated Press
NEW RIVER AIR STATION, N.C. — Days before Lance Cpl. Kenny Milton was scheduled to return home from Afghanistan, his wife sat on the floor of a sweltering helicopter hangar, painting on poster board.
"My husband, my heart, my hero," she drew on the board while around her other wives and kids of deployed Marines made up placards for their own loved ones. Even though she had drawn four other signs over the past few weeks, she came to the banner-marking party at New River Air Station with a friend to paint more.
"It's important to me that my husband, every which way he turns, he sees something that has his name on it because he knows how much I've missed him, and I know how much he's missed me," said Selina Milton, whose husband was returning after seven months away from home on his first deployment.
About 30 families participated in the banner-making party, one of many held at New River and nearby Camp Lejeune as troops return from both Iraq and Afghanistan. The banners from New River families line U.S. Highway 17 leading to the air station, while the Camp Lejeune banners hang from fences along N.C. Highway 24.
They're part of a Marine tradition with uncertain roots that's observed from Lejeune on the East Coast to Camp Pendleton in California.
"It's just one of those things — we've always done it," said Family Readiness Officer Christine Shawhan, who works with the families of the VMM-365, an Osprey squadron with about 200 members. " ... It really helps the families. That's when the celebration starts. It makes it real for the families that they're getting their Marines or sailors back."
Families use the poster parties as a way to channel their anticipation of seeing their loved ones again after months of separation and worry.
Their creations caught the attention and admiration of a peace activist, Chuck Fager, who says they are a kind of folk art. Fager has started a photographic collection of the signs he first noticed as he visited Fort Bragg soldiers jailed in the brig at Lejeune.
"There was a variety and color and emotion in the banners that really began to catch my eye," said Fager, director of Fayetteville's Quaker House.
Some signs are a straightforward greeting— Welcome Home, Sgt. Smith. Others were witty or touching. "Packages sent -- 20. Nights alone -- 215. Tears cried -- tons. Two weeks with Cpl. Ham. PRICELESS," reads one banner in Fager's book. "Thanks Iraq 4 giving me Evan back," reads another. Among the racier banners was this one with drawings of hearts and an apple: "Welcome home Zack Seavey. No more pickin' my own fruit."
When Fager realized most posters fell victim to the elements, he decided to photograph his favorites and put them in an online book titled "Priceless." He rescued a couple from the ground and kept them. They are, he says, cultural artifacts.
"In my collection, I don't really have any commentary," Fager said. "It's not about me and my views about the war. It's about these families calling out to each other in a difficult situation and doing so with a wit and sensitivity that's very touching."
The New River gathering marked the start of Ginny Miller's welcome-home celebration for her husband, Gunnery Sgt. Joshua Miller. She was making signs with the help of her parents and her three sons, ages 9, 7 and 5. She had had heavy-duty vinyl signs made for their house but the boys also wanted to make their own for their dad, Gunnery Sgt. Joshua Miller. And they were helping by making generic signs for the single Marines who might not have anyone to welcome them home.
"I think the main thing for this is that it is a sign that the end of the deployment is coming," Miller said. "I really think that's it. You get to the point where it's time to make homecoming signs, and it's just so exciting."
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