It was the best Christmas present Lawrence residents Doris and Loyce Bell ever could have received.
“I’m loving it,” Doris said, her small house overflowing with her 16 grandkids. “This is a joy and a dream come true, and most of all a blessing.”
For the first time in more than a decade, the entire Bell clan — all five of the Bell children and each of their families — is home for the holidays. What made it even more special was when 34-year-old Sgt. Vernon Bell, fresh off three consecutive tours in Iraq, walked through the door.
“I haven’t had too many Christmases around the family, especially my own,” Vernon Bell said. “To be home, to have a good one and with my family, too, is just great.”
Vernon, a 1994 Lawrence High School graduate, joined the Navy immediately following high school. After serving for four years, he made the switch to the U.S. Army and has completed three tours of duty in Iraq, starting in 2003. Vernon returned to Iraq in 2005 and thought he was on his way home a year later, until the Army extended his unit’s deployment, literally turning the plane around and sending the soldiers back.
“That crushed my family more than anything,” Vernon said, “because they were expecting me to come home. They were ready for me to come home, and when I didn’t come home it kind of hurt them.”
Vernon then returned to Iraq in August 2008, working as a cook in food services at Camp Warhorse in Baqubah. He made it back to his home near Fairbanks, Alaska, in September. He said that after spending time in the 110-degree heat, he was looking forward to a white Christmas in Lawrence and hoping to stay out of the kitchen while someone else did the cooking.
All joking aside, his thoughts are still with soldiers who are serving overseas.
“I’m glad to be home, and I hope the rest of them come home safe,” he said.
Vernon’s family said the last six years have been stressful. His wife, Maureen, said she would avoid the news, not wanting to hear any bad news from Iraq. She said their family adjusted their life to share holidays and birthdays over a Web cam.
“This is really special to us because we haven’t spent Christmas together as a family in four years,” Maureen said.
Doris Bell said the group doesn’t have any elaborate holiday plans, other than spending time together, laughing, catching up and watching a family favorite holiday movie, “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.”
Vernon Bell is in the process of transitioning to Fort Lee, Va., where he’ll work as an instructor, teaching other people to become military cooks.
His mom said his visit home was better than any present under the Christmas tree.
“I’m just thankful and grateful the Lord spared his life,” Doris said, “and allowed him to come back to us.”