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U.S. Marine’s homecoming bittersweet for TDCJ mother

TDCJ employee gears up for deployment to Asia with Air Force engineer squadron

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U.S. Marine’s homecoming bittersweet for TDCJ mother

Editor’s Note: The following updates a story published in the September/October issue of Connections.

Jeannith and Richard Belanger holding framed portrait of son in uniform with the Texas and US flag flying in background

"It was bad, but through friends, family and prayer, we made it. I’ve waited nine months for this and it’s here, so I’m very blessed."

Richard Belanger, Josh Hill, and Jeannith Belanger posing in front of the US and Texas flag in the yard in front of their home
U.S. Marine Cpl. Josh Hill returned home from Iraq in October and drove from California to be with his mother, Ellis Food Service Sgt. Jeannith Belanger, and step-father, retired Senior Warden Richard Belanger, at their Riverside home. After two tours in Iraq, the 22-year-old recipient of the Bronze Star volunteered for further duty in the war against terrorism, this time in Afganistan.
Photos by David Nunnelee
In June of last year, she could only hold his portrait. In October, she could finally hold him.

Nine months of worry for Ellis Unit Food Service Sgt. Jeannith Belanger ended in October, albeit briefly, with the safe return of her youngest son, U.S. Marine Cpl. Josh Hill, from a second tour of duty in Iraq where he earned the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for valor in combat.

“It was bad, but through friends, family and prayer, we made it” Jeannith said as she and her son sat on the back porch of her Riverside home. “I’ve waited nine months for this and it’s here, so I’m very blessed.”

But Josh’s joyous homecoming turned somewhat bittersweet for Jeannith when he told her that he had volunteered for a third tour of duty, this time in Afghanistan where he will continue to serve with his two best friends, fellow company corporals Rob Chatman and Rob Duncan, both of whom accompanied him to his mother’s home.

“I can’t stop him, Jeannith said. “It’s what he wants to do. I’m his mom and I’ll be 100 percent behind him.”

Josh, 22, spent his latest tour of duty in the militant stronghold of Fallujah, Iraq. On his first patrol in the city, he was wounded when a car bomb exploded as he led a squad of Marines in a house-to-house search for insurgents. The blast burst his eardrum, leaving him with hearing loss.

“It’s still kind of muffled, but it’s coming back,” Josh said about his hearing at the start of his 30-day leave.

The bravery in battle Josh demonstrated to win the Bronze Star was chronicled in the Los Angeles Times Magazine this past summer. It was in late April that his squad was attacked by militants on three sides and was in danger of being overrun when Josh took up a defensive position in an open window and opened fire. According to his company commander’s account recommending him for the medal, the corporal fired so intensely that the barrel of his automatic weapon melted. Undeterred, he calmly replaced it with another barrel and continued his fire, covering his comrades as they collected their wounded and withdrew. As he followed, Josh stopped and used one arm to pick up a fellow Marine blinded in the attack while continuing to fire at the enemy with his free hand.

Despite the harrowing experience, Josh said he volunteered for a third tour of duty in a war zone because he couldn’t let his two closest friends go to Afghanistan without him. He also believes strongly in his mission. Josh said he expects to leave for Afghanistan in June and be there six to seven months.

“It’s hard for my family but its one of those things where you ask God why you’re good at what you do,” he said. “My family is behind me and I’ve got God over my shoulder. Who can stop me?”

TDCJ employee gears up for deployment to Asia with Air Force engineer squadron

illustration of man with half of body in suit and half of body in a soldier's fatigues.Kevin McCue isn’t your average engineer. A valued member of TDCJ’s Facilities Division, he is also known as Major McCue to members of the 307th “Red Horse Squadron” of the United States Air Force Reserve.

Since September 11, 2001, many reservists have been called to service, and now it’s McCue’s turn. His unit is set to mobilize for an extended tour of duty in the southwestern part of Asia. While many details of the assignment are either classified or undetermined, he has high hopes of being home before this time next year. McCue is taking his orders in stride, referring to the coming months as “a short leave of absence.”

The 307th Red Horse Squadron isn’t a typical reserve unit. Its members, both men and women, are regularly called to all corners of the world to perform services to both our military and other nations. That’s why the McCue family is able to be comfortable with Kevin’s prolonged absence, as he has often been away for a week or two at a time in the seven years he’s been in the reserves.

McCue doesn’t expect his overseas duties to differ greatly from those he performs for TDCJ. The one big difference, of course, will be that he’ll wear a United States Air Force uniform while on active military duty. And he’ll be able to walk to work.

“At least I won’t have an hour-long commute anymore,” joked McCue, who drives to his job in Huntsville from Spring each day.

The Red Horse Squadron can build airfields, refugee camps, offices, housing, and roads to connect them all. Having already traveled to Virginia and Bermuda with the Navy, then Ohio, Oklahoma, Korea, and Central America with the Air Force, Kevin feels ready to tackle the challenges of Asia.

“It’s not particularly dangerous,” McCue said. “Anyway, the military is very serious about us surviving.”

There is, however, some degree of danger in his line of work, so his unit will receive special training and equipment before leaving America. Weapons, gas masks, and extensive medical exams will prepare each man or woman for the 12-hour work days ahead.

While McCue has never found himself in a life or death situation, he feels prepared for anything. He knows that he has a family to come home to and plenty of supporters here in the Facilities Division. The Air Force has a new program called the Employer Recognition Program designed to reward organizations such as the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for assisting reservists in meeting their obligation to the United States government.

“Human Resources has a great system in place to help ease our transition to and from active duty,” said McCue. “I know that my leaving will put a burden on our department, but I also know that we have intelligent, capable engineers here in the Facilities Division.”

He expects many of his current pending projects to begin late next year and hopes he’ll be back in time to see them through. To that end, McCue has been putting in some extra muscle to help ease the transition for his co-workers. The military has extensive communication already in place, however, so McCue plans to take advantage of it by contacting his colleagues for their expertise when he can’t find what he needs overseas.

“We have good people that work here,” McCue said. “I know I can depend on them to help me out.”

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