NEW RIVER AIR STATION, N.C. – Days before Lance Cpl. Kenny Milton was scheduled to return home from Afghanistan, his wife sat on the floor of a sweltering helicopter hangar, painting on poster board.
"My husband, my heart, my hero," she drew on the board while around her other wives and kids of deployed Marines made up placards for their own loved ones. Even though she had drawn four other signs over the past few weeks, she came to the banner-marking party at New River Air Station with a friend to paint more.
"It's important to me that my husband, every which way he turns, he sees something that has his name on it because he knows how much I've missed him, and I know how much he's missed me," said Selina Milton, whose husband was returning after seven months away from home on his first deployment.
About 30 families participated in the banner-making party, one of many held at New River and nearby Camp Lejeune as troops return from both Iraq and Afghanistan. The banners from New River families line U.S. Highway 17 leading to the air station, while the Camp Lejeune banners hang from fences along N.C. Highway 24.
They're part of a Marine tradition with uncertain roots that's observed from Lejeune on the East Coast to Camp Pendleton in California.
"It's just one of those things — we've always done it," said Family Readiness Officer Christine Shawhan, who works with the families of the VMM-365, an Osprey squadron with about 200 members. " ... It really helps the families. That's when the celebration starts. It makes it real for the families that they're getting their Marines or sailors back."
Families use the poster parties as a way to channel their anticipation of seeing their loved ones again after months of separation and worry.
Their creations caught the attention and admiration of a peace activist, Chuck Fager, who says they are a kind of folk art. Fager has started a photographic collection of the signs he first noticed as he visited Fort Bragg soldiers jailed in the brig at Lejeune.
"There was a variety and color and emotion in the banners that really began to catch my eye," said Fager, director of Fayetteville's Quaker House.
Some signs are a straightforward greeting — Welcome Home, Sgt. Smith. Others were witty or touching. "Packages sent -- 20. Nights alone -- 215. Tears cried -- tons. Two weeks with Cpl. Ham. PRICELESS," reads one banner in Fager's book. "Thanks Iraq 4 giving me Evan back," reads another. Among the racier banners was this one with drawings of hearts and an apple: "Welcome home Zack Seavey. No more pickin' my own fruit."
When Fager realized most posters fell victim to the elements, he decided to photograph his favorites and put them in an online book titled "Priceless." He rescued a couple from the ground and kept them. They are, he says, cultural artifacts.
"In my collection, I don't really have any commentary," Fager said. "It's not about me and my views about the war. It's about these families calling out to each other in a difficult situation and doing so with a wit and sensitivity that's very touching."
The New River gathering marked the start of Ginny Miller's welcome-home celebration for her husband, Gunnery Sgt. Joshua Miller. She was making signs with the help of her parents and her three sons, ages 9, 7 and 5. She had had heavy-duty vinyl signs made for their house but the boys also wanted to make their own for their dad, Gunnery Sgt. Joshua Miller. And they were helping by making generic signs for the single Marines who might not have anyone to welcome them home.
"I think the main thing for this is that it is a sign that the end of the deployment is coming," Miller said. "I really think that's it. You get to the point where it's time to make homecoming signs, and it's just so exciting."
Seven-year-old James said he was drawing a flag with his dad saluting. "He's talking to his friend in the Osprey," he said. "I tried to do my best." He was certain his father would be proud of the sign because he included "XOXO" on his sign.
The signs are temporary art for the most part. Families tend to save their vinyl signs that cost money but the ones on paper and sheets generally get tossed, either by the families or the Marines, whose rules say the banners come down every Thursday. Rules also warn against inappropriate banners or ones that discredit the Marine Corps.
Rules are similar at Camp Pendleton, where all banners are on the base, says Bill Durdin, a retired Marine who's the family readiness coordinator for 29 units. The banners likely mean as much or more to the families as they do to the Marines and sailors, he said.
For the families, "it's something to keep them busy, something to keep their minds off the fact that their husband or dad is deployed to a war zone and keep it in their mind that he or she is coming home soon," he said. The troops like the signs, but "first and foremost, they're home," he said. "Anything else is just icing on the cake."
Working on banners does keep you focused, says Courtnie Schumacher. She also had already prepared several banners, including one that made her giggle: "Welcome home, Lance Cpl. Schumacher. I hope you slept on the plane."
She had worked on signs all week with Milton, her friend. "It keeps you busy," she said. "It helps the realization that they're coming home kick in."
Caitlin Wendler was painting on a sheet for a twin bed, left over from her not-so-long-ago single days. She and Capt. Mathew Wendler, an Osprey pilot, had gotten married two weeks before he deployed. "My favorite animal is home," the banner was going to read.
"We have a dog and a horse," she said. "The inside joke is that my husband is another animal."
Not all the designs work out.
Amanda Stoop wanted her 3-year-old daughter, Makayla, to make blue footprints and red handprints for the banner for Cpl. Matthew Stoop. "So it will look like a flag, hopefully, eventually," said Stoop, whose pedicure included American flags painted on each big toe.
"Daddy, I can't wait to get my hands on you," the banner would read.
Stoop alternated between giving directions to Makayla and talking about her husband, whose military duty ends in November.
"Walk close to the cardboard, walk on it like on a line," she told her daughter. "As you can see, we might have to start over," she said, recognizing that Makayla's feet weren't leaving much paint behind on the sheet.
"It's only a couple of minutes before they get back that they see it on the fence, but it's still 'we were thinking about you while you were gone,'" she said. "And it'll be a good photo op."
Eventually they left the party, in search of a different kind of paint.
The party wound down. Some mothers and children left; a few others arrived late. The bottles of water that Shawhan brought in a cooler grew fewer and fewer as the end-of-July heat sapped the energy of even the energetic children, who grew cranky instead of playful. In the midst of the celebration was the knowledge that the families are part of a cycle of deployment, worry and homecoming — if they're lucky.
And they were this time because none of the squadron's members were killed or wounded.
"Before we know it, they're going to be back and we're all going to be good — until the next time," Milton said. "But that's whole thing about this lifestyle. Every day is a gift. You have to live every single day like they're deploying tomorrow."
Fager's book: http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/1244861
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc