A Labor Day weekend surprise greets a returning soldier
When Lance Corporal Owen Mercer, USMC, saw four police cruisers and a fire truck with lights flashing and horns honking as he walked off the ferry at 4:30 pm Sunday in Vineyard Haven, he thought it was some kind of Labor Day celebration. "Then I saw the signs with my name on them, and I turned red in the face," he said. "It was a complete surprise."
Friends and family held up "Welcome Home" signs to greet Lance Corporal (LCpl.) Mercer, accompanied by his wife Jennifer, on his arrival for an Island visit after completing a seven-month tour of duty in Iraq and Kuwait.
An American Legion color guard and veterans stood ready to salute the returning soldier. One of them, dressed in his Air Force blues, added a hug along with his salute. As the young Marine's grandfather, Major Stan Mercer, USAF (Ret.), was entitled to expand on military protocol.
"In addition to being proud of him, his homecoming was a huge relief," Major Mercer said afterwards.
When asked in a phone call Monday what he missed most while away from the Island, LCpl. Mercer answered, "Fishing." Before his short visit home ended Tuesday, he managed to put in some quality casting time Sunday night and most of the day Monday, which was topped off with a lobster dinner at his parents' house.
Deployed to Iraq with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, in January 2009, LCpl. Mercer spent the first month of his tour patrolling towns in Sinjar, a region in northwestern Iraq near the Syrian border.
"We were trying to stop smuggling from the Syrian side," he said. "They try to smuggle in everything, including tobacco and alcohol. We didn't care about that. We were just trying to stop weapons from coming across the border."
In February his company moved to the desert where they lived out of trucks, enduring frigid temperatures. They brought enough food and water in seven-ton convoy trucks to keep them supplied for almost the whole month.
"It was mostly fuel that had to be resupplied, and that came from the nearest combat outpost, about 45 minutes away from us," LCpl. Mercer said.
About a month later, his company moved to Combat Outpost Rawah, which he said is about a half hour from Al Asad in central Iraq.
"Our missions there were more about working with the Iraqi police and security patrols, and we also went around and spoke with sheiks and town leaders," LCpl. Mercer said. "The Iraqi police are pretty successful. Even during operations, we act more as their backup. We're there for support and guidance."
After a few months operating out of Rawah, his unit went to Kuwait. When asked what he considered the most difficult aspect of his tour, LCpl. Mercer said, "The heat." Summer temperatures averaged 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Despite the hardships, he said his tour in Iraq was what he expected, due to the training he received.
"Before deployment, each unit does a month-long training event, Mojave Viper, in the desert in Twentynine Palms, California," LCpl. Mercer said. "Every Marine goes through that before deploying. It's like a final test, after you train for eight to ten months." Born in Oak Bluffs, LCpl. Mercer grew up in Vineyard Haven and graduated from Martha's Vineyard Regional High School in 2005. He joined the Marines when he turned 18 and left in November that year for boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina.
After attending infantry school at Camp Lejeune, he attended security guard school in Chesapeake, Va., and then was stationed in Norfolk. Assigned to a USMC Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, LCpl. Mercer was deployed to Japan in 2007.
In July 2008 he was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., and deployed to Iraq about six months later.
After finishing his tour in Iraq, LCpl. returned to Camp Pendleton on August 21 for two weeks. He flew to Boston on leave on Sept. 4, joining his wife Jennifer, who is from Methuen.
They met through a mutual friend about three years ago. Matt Montanile, LCpl. Mercer's friend since high school, met Jennifer while attending Bridgewater State College. He introduced her to LCpl. Mercer when he was home for a long weekend.
Now the young couple is looking forward to the birth of their first child, due on September 18. LCpl. Mercer, age 22, has a year left in his five-year military commitment, which ends in November 2010. "I'm thinking about getting out, and doing what's best for my family," he said. "I'm looking at becoming a fire fighter, or maybe a game warden."
In the meantime, LCpl. Mercer does not know yet what his next military assignment will be. After his wife gives birth, he will fly out to Camp Pendleton and get base housing ready for her and the baby, who will join him there later.
At Sunday's homecoming event, family members who greeted the surprised soldier included his parents, Walter and Lynn Mercer, his 16-year-old brother Kyle, his grandmother and Major Mercer's wife, Marie, his cousin Gail Herman, and her mother Pam Herman.
High school friends Tom Corr and Lance Fullin also joined in the occasion. Although Mr. Montanile was unable to attend because he was working a shift as an EMT for Tri-Town Ambulance, some of his family members were there.
First responders from the Tisbury Police and Fire Departments, as well as the Chilmark, West Tisbury, and State Police departments also took part. In addition to Major Mercer, veterans who attended included American Legion Post 257 Commander Kevan Nichols, Veterans Services Officer Jo Ann Murphy, Fred B. "Ted" Morgan, Bill Carroll, Ed Colligan, George Santos, Bob Falkenburg, Jim Dorsey, and Gene DeFelice.