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David Benedict of Salisbury embraces his son, Cpl. Brian Benedict, as the Marine steps off a bus at the Londonderry Reserve Center. (APRIL GUILMET)

Marines return home to eager families and chance to reconnect

LONDONDERRY — Though it's already well into January, Manchester mother Maureen Farrington plans on keeping her Christmas tree up a little longer this winter.

Farrington was one of hundreds of friends and family members gathered inside the Londonderry Reserve Center well into the early hours of Friday morning, eagerly awaiting the moment she'd get to see her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Derek Puzzanghera, 22, step off the bus and into the snow.

Puzzanghera, a member of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, had been deployed in Afghanistan since May 2011.

All 200 members of the Londonderry-based Marines unit arrived home safe and sound Friday morning.

Friends and family began piling into the Reserve Center at 64 Harvey Road at around 9 p.m. Thursday.

Bravo Company had been scheduled to arrive at 10:30 p.m. Thursday, but weather conditions made for slow traveling, officials said.

Shortly after 1:30 a.m. Friday, the five buses carrying the members of Bravo Company, escorted by New Hampshire State Police cruisers, members of the Patriot Guard Riders and other veterans' motorcycle groups, pulled into the parking lot, welcomed by hundreds of friends and relatives carrying signs and waving American flags.

Members of the Pease Greeters had also planned on participating in the festivities, but made a last-minute decision not to attend so the site's limited space could go to waiting loved ones.

The Marine unit consists mainly of troops from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine, though a handful of Marines come from Maryland and beyond.

Farrington came to the reserve center with her mother, Gloria, and Puzzanghera's girlfriend, Amanda Kelly, who'd met her sweetheart when he was home on leave and had been waiting for him ever since.

&#';We wrote lots of letters,&#'; said Kelly.

Puzzanghera announced his plans to enlist in the Marines on Christmas day 2009. &#';That was my present that year,&#'; Farrington said. &#';He really made a last-minute decision to join.&#';

This year, the family has a lot more to celebrate, even if that celebration is somewhat belated. &#';All his gifts are wrapped and under the tree right now,&#'; said Farrington. &#';We'll be celebrating Christmas all week.&#';

Haverhill, Mass., parents Alan and Sarasue Dick, said they had similar plans as they awaited the arrival of their son, Cpl. Andrew Dick, 24, who was returning from his second tour to complete his studies at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

&#';We're going to have our Christmas on Sunday,&#'; said the Marine mom, sitting next to Dick's older sister Kate, 31, and his longtime girlfriend Alyssa, 22, who's been dating Dick since both were in high school. &#';The rest is up to him.&#';

Sarasue Dick said her son had dreamed of become a Marine since he was little boy. &#';He didn't play with trucks, it was always G.I. Joe,&#'; she said with a laugh. &#';By the time he was a freshman, he was just determined to go and take care of his country.&#';

For many members of Bravo Company, this wasn't their first deployment.

The Marine unit had been activated several times since 9/11: in January 2003, the battalion went in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, and it was again activated in March 2006 for a seven-month stint in Iraq. Members had returned from another seven-month tour in April 2009.

As a special surprise for the Bravo Company, volunteers arranged for the unit's beloved former gunnery sergeant, Gunnery Sgt. Vincent Russo, otherwise known as &#';Gunny,&#'; to be among the welcoming crowd.

Terry Raposo, a civilian case manager with the Army National Guard, has volunteered for Bravo Company since 2006. &#';I've established such great relationships with these Marines,&#'; Raposo said. &#';So when Gunny told me last fall that he'd give anything to see his boys come home, I knew we had to help.&#';

Russo, who is now stationed as a recruiter in his home state of Iowa, left the Londonderry-based unit in 2010 but has remained in contact with many members since then. The Veterans Count organization helped fund Russo's trip to the Granite State, flying him into Manchester-Boston Regional Airport just in time to welcome his &#';boys&#'; home.

&#';It's unbelievable to be here right now,&#'; said Russo, a 16-year Marine who walks with a cane. &#';I've talked to many of them on speaker phone at times when they were (in Afghanistan) but it's just not the same.&#';

Russo said the Bravo Company has &#';some of the hardest working Marines he's ever met.&#';

&#';Some are lawyers, some are Boston firefighters. These guys have civilian jobs, they have families: it's tougher, in a way, than being an active duty Marine,&#'; said Russo.

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