A sign with the message “USMC proud,” stands at the entrance to the Victory Lakes development in Prince William County.
A few yards down the road, another sign reads, “Brooke is the coolest!”
The poster board signs and their marker messages outline a path to the home of Brooke St. John, a Marine returning from Iraq to spend the holidays with her family.
“You do us proud!”
The signs are staked on both sides of the road, in the front yards of neighbors and friends. The trail leads to the house of Brooke’s mother and stepfather, where the last sign, “No camel zone,” is posted. The house itself is decked out for the holidays with Christmas lights, a wreath on the door and a huge red Marine Corps banner that says “Welcome Home!”
After eight months in Iraq, three extensions of her tour, and time spent near some of the hottest spots in the country, St. John has made it home for the holidays.
In preparation for her arrival, a group of her family and friends got together to make the signs as a surprise.
“We ordered a bunch of pizza and spent the weekend making signs,” said Anne Meeks, St. John’s aunt.
St. John, a lance corporal attached to the 3rd Marine aircraft wing out of Miramar, Calif., saw the welcome signs for the first time Wednesday night when she arrived home from Dulles International Airport.
Her arrival was a little later than expected because of a missed connection in Chicago. However, a two-hour delay caused by airplane troubles is nothing to a family that’s been waiting months for her to come home.
St. John, who turns 21 next month, has been in Iraq since April. She was originally supposed to come back to the United States in October. Then her departure was pushed back to November. Finally, the family heard that she would be home for the holidays.
Mentally, they were prepared for another disappointment.
“With the elections coming up in Iraq, we were worried she would be delayed again,” said Brooke’s mother, Tracey St. John.
Brooke’s aunt said she kept herself from getting excited until she heard that Brooke had called from Kuwait to say she was on her way.
“I kept saying, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’,” Meeks said.
Meeks was a part of the crowd of family and friends waiting in the driveway when Brooke arrived from Dulles with her mom, step-dad and grandmother.
“I can’t believe all these signs,” Brooke said after a round of hugs and greetings. “It’s a little embarrassing. There’s a lot of people like me, who do what I do.”
When everyone got inside from the cold, there was something very different in the living room of the house. The TV was off.
“We watch CNN 24 hours a day,” Tracey said.
The family watched with apprehension over the past months, knowing that Brooke was stationed near Fallujah when the fight for the city was taking place.
“We could tell when something big was happening, because there would be a period where we wouldn’t get a phone call,” Tracey said.
Inside the house, Brooke tried to dispel her mom’s worry.
“It doesn’t mean anything if I don’t call for a few weeks,” she said. “The military will notify my family within 24 hours if anything happens to me.”
Brooke’s mother had one especially big scare during one of the lapses in communication. She was getting out of her car when she saw a black suburban slow down and stop in front of the house. It sat there a moment, then moved on.
“I about fell apart in the driveway,” she said. “It scared the hell out of me.”
Finally back safe and sound, St. John has three weeks to be with her friends and family. She hasn’t been home in almost a year.
“Being here for the holidays is huge,” she said. “Actually, I really lucked out. A lot of people weren’t as fortunate.”
The friends she left behind weren’t completely out of St. John’s mind as she headed home, however. She shared a little of the holiday spirit, Marine-style, sending over care packages that included Christmas lights and little trees, as well as one item that’s in high demand among her colleagues.
“We sent lots of beef jerky,” she said. “For some reason, Marines just love beef jerky.”
St. John said her immediate plans include lots of sleep and a minimum of eight showers a day. Stella Reading, St. John’s grandmother, knows why the showers are so important.
“Didn’t you tell me that the water over there is brown?” she asked.
“Yeah, we have to drink bottled water,” St. John replied. “You can wash in it when you have to, but sometimes you’ve got to take a bottled-water shower.”
In the living room after returning from the airport, Tracey St. John wants to see proof of something her daughter has told her about.
“I have got to see a picture of a camel spider,” she said.
Camel spiders, which can grow as big as a dinner plate, are one way that Marines in Iraq can tell who has just arrived, St. John said.
“They want to get out of the sun, so sometimes they try to get in your shadow,” she said. “You can tell when people are new, because you see them running from the camel spiders.”
There are no more camel spiders in St. John’s immediate future. After her three weeks of leave, she’ll report to Air Station Miramar, near San Diego, for at least eight months.
“After that, it’s back to Iraq,” she said. “I’ll go back, and I’ll do my job.”
But for now, she can enjoy time with friends and family and kick back for the holidays. And her family can take a break from 24-hour news coverage.
“We’ve just now let our breath out,” Reading said. “We’ve been holding it a long time.”