As passengers thronged off the Island Home ferry in Vineyard Haven Friday evening, a special greeting party stood by the ramp and waited anxiously. A cheer went up with the first glimpse of Staff Sgt. Christopher Willis, dressed in a camouflage hat and fatigues, home from war.
Fire truck and ambulance sirens wailed and the ferry horn sounded as the returning soldier, home from a yearlong tour in Afghanistan, walked down the ramp with his 19-month-old daughter Micaeh (“Mika”) in his arms and his wife Joanna Ruskin by his side.
Staff Sergeant Willis, age 32, was deployed last August as a sergeant with the C Co., 1st Battalion 181st Infantry Regiment, in the Paktika Province of Afghanistan, his fourth overseas tour of duty since 2002.
In the past, he returned to the Vineyard from his overseas tours quietly and avoided the limelight of the Island’s exuberant welcome home celebrations for soldiers. But this time around, his brother Patrick Willis helped Dukes County director of veterans services Jo Ann Murphy coordinate the festivities, even though he was unable to attend.
“I’m very proud of my brother,” Patrick said in a phone conversation with The Times on Friday. “If anyone deserves a big welcome home, it’s him.”
On Friday, Ms. Murphy made sure that happened. Tisbury and Oak Bluffs first responders provided a symphony of sirens, as she and a color guard and members from American Legion Post #257 in Vineyard Haven stood by. Edson Rogers played patriotic songs on his bugle.
Travelers at the ferry dock and on the upper deck of the Island Home waiting to disembark joined in the applause and cheers for Staff Sergeant Willis.
“It feels good to come home, especially since this was my final tour,” he said with a big smile. As for what he will do next, he added, “I’m on a paid vacation until November, and looking forward to my honeymoon.”
Staff Sergeant Willis and his wife were married last August, the day before he left on his deployment to Afghanistan, in a brief ceremony, . On August 27, they plan to do it all again, this time before friends and family at a wedding on Martha’s Vineyard.
Four deployments over nine years
Staff Sergeant Willis’s most recent tour was his second in Afghanistan. He also served two tours in Iraq. When asked how difficult it was to cope with multiple deployments, he said, “I have the mindset that you go, and once you get there, you focus on your job.”
Staff Sergeant Willis said his attitude toward his military service “runs in my blood,” and that he modeled his career after that of his late grandfather, Robert Merritt, a 30-year U.S. Navy veteran.
“But this time around, it was very hard,” Staff Sergeant Willis added. “I have a family now, and that made a huge difference.”
His daughter was seven months old when he was deployed. He said he kept up with her progress over the past year with updates from his wife through phone calls, emails, and Skype, a software application that allows users to make voice and video calls and chats over the Internet.
Staff Sergeant Willis served as a squad leader with a Provincial Reconstruction Team security force.
He grew up in Oak Bluffs and graduated from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 1998. Staff Sergeant Willis joined the Massachusetts Army National Guard before enrolling in college, and was called up in 2002 to serve as a military police officer in Afghanistan for a year.
In July 2007 he was deployed to Iraq with the “C” Company 1-181 Infantry out of Cambridge and served as a team leader as part of the strategic counter-intelligence directorate in Baghdad.
On his third tour in 2009, Mr. Willis, at that time a sergeant, served with the 772nd Military Police Company, based out of Taunton, in Al Kut Iraq of part of a police transition team.
He was awarded a Bronze Star Medal on July 16, 2009, for his service from January 24 through October 29. The accompanying citation recognized him “…for exceptionally meritorious service in a combat zone, for an exposure to risk and hostile action during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and his outstanding duty performance during combat operations in Iraq which contributed to the overwhelming success of the command’s mission.
“His actions are in keeping with the finest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon him, the Multi-National Corps – Iraq and the United States Army.”
Back to civilian life
Friday’s homecoming continued a celebration for Staff Sergeant Willis that started in Cambridge. Hundreds of Massachusetts National Guard soldiers from armories in Worcester, Agawam, Hudson, Gardner, and Cambridge that serve in the 1st Battalion 181st Infantry Regiment from returned home the last week in July.
Staff Sergeant Willis’s wife, daughter, and several family members were in Cambridge to greet him on the C company’s return July 24. The day was a double celebration for Ms. Ruskin, since her husband arrived home on her birthday. Afterwards, he remained in Cambridge for out-processing.
In a conversation with The Times before the second celebration of her son’s arrival Friday night, Gail Hines said she was very thankful he was home from his fourth, and hopefully last, deployment.
“So many families don’t have loved ones that return safe and whole,” said Mrs. Hines, who works in the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital business office.
When asked how she coped while her son was deployed, Mrs. Hines said she tried not to think about it. “I grew up in a military family and went through the same experience with my Dad being in Vietnam,” she said.
Multiple deployments for those who serve in the National Guard and Reserves present different challenges, she pointed out.
“These are regular people that are called to serve and have to leave jobs and families behind,” Mrs. Hines said. “They have to hope they will come back to a job. Chris has had many different jobs because of his military service, and it’s been very tough.”
In addition to his National Guard duty, Staff Sergeant Willis also has a history of service with the Oak Bluffs Fire Department (OBPD), as his stepfather Greg Hines pointed out. Mr. Hines said his stepson worked beside him on Engine #3 for 5 of the 25 years he has worked as an OBPD volunteer. Staff Sergeant Willis’s uncle, Bob Merritt, is an emergency medical technician for the Oak Bluffs Ambulance service.
Other family members on hand to greet Staff Sergeant Willis included his grandmother, Ann Merritt, his stepsisters Katie and Emily Hines, both students at UMass Amherst, his cousin Scott Merritt, and uncle David Merritt, all of Oak Bluffs. His stepbrother Michael Hines, who lives in Harwich, was unable to attend.
Staff Sergeant Willis and his family returned to their home in Hartsdale, N.Y., on Monday. Before his deployment, he worked as part of Home Depot’s management team. His wife is a nurse at Northern Westchester Hospital. The couple also works for their own nutritional business, Isagenix.