Vineyarders often greet arriving travelers at the ferry dock, but it was clear to curious onlookers that the crowd of uniformed police officers, veterans, family, and friends gathered at the Vineyard Haven Steamship Authority slip Tuesday for the 2 pm arrival of the appropriately named Island Home were there for an especially celebratory welcome.
And that is just what Sgt. J. N. Christopher “Chris” Brown, home from Afghanistan, received. There were police and fire sirens, and horns, and a crowd that included travelers on the upper deck of the ferry waiting to disembark who cheered as Sergeant Brown walked down the passenger ramp and into the arms of family and friends.
A group of his buddies on motorcycles parked next to the gangway revved their engines, adding one of Sergeant Brown’s favorite sounds to the welcoming cacophony.
Sergeant Brown, 26, left Martha’s Vineyard last August for a one-year deployment with the Army 181st Infantry as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan’s Kunar province.
The soldier’s dad, Jim Brown, met his son on the mainland and accompanied him on his ferry ride back home. When they arrived, his mother, Deborah “Deb”, and big sister Abby waited at the end of the gangplank. Passersby and waiting ferry passengers joined the celebration.
Dukes County director of veterans services Jo Ann Murphy stood by with a color guard and members from American Legion Post #257 in Vineyard Haven. Edson Rodgers played rousing tunes on his bugle.
Prior to his departure, Sergeant Brown worked as a temporary Chilmark police officer and graduated from the police academy. On Tuesday, Island police lined up in a row.
Chilmark Police Chief Brian Cioffi stood at attention, along with police officers from several other departments. After a formal salute, Chief Cioffi threw his arms around Sergeant Brown, followed by more of the same from everyone down the line.
One of those most eager to greet the returning soldier was Bryce Cioffi, age 4. He clutched an American flag in one hand while he wrapped his arms around the neck of the soldier he calls his “buddy.”
After the excitement subsided, Sergeant Brown told The Times he has been counting the days until his homecoming.
“It’s been a torture the last month or so; it seemed like a neverending road trying to get back,” he said, adding with a smile, “Now that I’m here, I’m going to go to the beach.”
He said he plans to return to work at the Chilmark Police Department, where he hopes to achieve a full-time permanent position — but not just yet.
“I’m going to bum around for the rest of summer and have some fun, and then I’ll get on it,” he said with a grin.
Sergeant Brown attended the Oak Bluffs School, where his mother is a physical education teacher. He graduated from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 2003. His deployment to Afghanistan was his second since he joined the Army National Guard as a college freshman.
Sergeant Brown was called to active duty the summer of 2006, before the start of his junior year and shortly after he began working as a Chilmark special police officer.
He was deployed on an 18-month tour of duty in Kosovo on a peacekeeping mission with United Nations forces. On his return in November 2007, Sergeant Brown, at that time ranked a specialist, received the Army Commendation Medal for meritorious achievement as a combat lifesaver.
Sergeant Brown returned to college for a semester and returned to work as a special police officer in Chilmark in the summer of 2008.
Later that year, he was one of nearly 1,500 National Guard troops deployed in the wake of a horrendous ice storm in Massachusetts on December 11, 2008, which hit the Worcester and Merrimack Valley areas the hardest.
He and fellow National Guardsman 2nd Lt. Brian Shaffer later received the Massachusetts Medal of Merit, the state’s highest award, for helping save a woman’s life when she was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from a gasoline-powered generator running next to her.
Sergeant Brown also participated in support efforts after hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.
Tuesday’s homecoming continued a celebration that started in Agawam Saturday, when Sergeant Brown’s parents and sister greeted him when he returned with his National Guard unit. Because he had to spend two more days there processing out, his family returned to the Island Sunday.
“It was a wonderful day on Saturday, but there is nothing like an Island homecoming,” Mr. Brown said.
Before her son’s arrival Tuesday, Mrs. Brown said she and her family were “over the top excited.”
“It’s been a really hard year for us, very, very difficult, because there was not a lot of communication with him since he was in such a remote place in Afghanistan,” Mrs. Brown said.
To kick off his homecoming celebration, she added, “We’re having a cookout back at our house, organized by all of his police officer friends. Our home is decorated like the fourth of July.”
Abby, age 29, lives in Weymouth and works for Thomson Reuters. She said it was a relief to have her brother home.
“Just to have our whole family back together will mean less sleepless nights,” she said. “It was a long year. We definitely worried while he was gone, but now that he’s back, we’ve heard stories and realized we probably should have been even more worried than we were.”