VALLEY DISPATCH/HOWARD MARTIN
Derek Cloutier and his wife, Lisa, were married just three days before Derek left for Iraq.
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DRACUT — A yellow ribbon hangs from the front door and a Marine Corps flag billows from a post on the side of the house. Inside, a family is preparing for the most thankful holiday season they have ever shared together.

Lance Cpl. Derek Cloutier, 24, returned from a seven-month tour in Iraq on Oct. 27. After months of worry and uncertainty, his family and bride can finally breathe again.

“I’m just relieved that he’s home safe,” said his wife Lisa Cloutier, 25. “The whole family is just really looking forward to spending a relaxing holiday together.”

The couple married just three days before Cloutier deployed with the1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment to Iraq last March. They were high-school sweethearts and grew up in the same neighborhood playing basketball together.

“I wanted to get married in the summertime next year, but when he came home for a three-day leave before shipping out to Iraq he asked me if we could get married before he left,” said Lisa.

The next day, the two scurried to get an expedited marriage certificate and Lisa power-shopped for a white gown. An hour before the nuptials, the groom realized they hadn’t gotten wedding bands.

“My step-father had to rush out and buy us bands,” he said.

The day after the wedding, Derek Cloutier left for Iraq. The couple said goodbye on the front porch of their Lowell apartment, knowing it could be for the last time.

Lisa wondered as her fingers slid off her husband’s shoulder if it would be the last time she would touch him and as he turned to get into the car, she thought maybe this would be the last time she would watch him walk away.

“The months he was in Iraq were excruciating,” said Lisa. “Every time a strange car pulled down the road or I heard a knock at the door I was afraid it was someone coming to tell me he’d been hurt or killed.”

The family tried to avoid the avalanche of news reports about fallen soldiers, suicide bombers and crashing helicopters.

“Whenever we saw something like that on television we’d worry it was Derek until we heard from him again,” said Lisa.

Cloutier, an infantry rifleman, spent his time in Iraq scouring the cities surrounding Fullujah for insurgents and training Iraqi forces. His family sent him care packages frequently and Lisa tried to write him every day.

“The best thing Lisa sent me from home were the local newspapers,” said Cloutier. “She would send me articles so I could read about what was going on at home and she sent me pictures of stuff that was happening so I didn’t feel so disconnected from everyone.”

When Cloutier got word that he was finally going home, a flood of emotions washed over him– excitement, happiness and worry. He worried how the transition would be and wondered how much had changed since he’d been gone.

But when he arrived at the Devens Reserve Training Area, his family was waiting anxiously and the only thing he could think about was hugging Lisa.

Now he’s looking forward to his first holiday season as a married man and enjoying some homemade holiday favorites at his father’s Dracut home.

“We are just really looking forward to spending a relaxing holiday together now that Derek is home safe and the drama is over,” said Lisa, a patient-care technician at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. “Now we can start thinking about and planning the rest of our lives.”

Cloutier, who has three years left in the Marine Reserves, plans to take the civil-service exam to become a firefighter in Lowell and work on a degree in criminal justice.

“We have a new addition to our family now too,” he said. “A new English mastiff puppy named Tank.”

Have a story idea? Contact Heidi Smith at 978-970-4653 or e-mail at hsmith@thevalleydispatch.com.

Roger and Kristen Noel survive separation anxiety

BY GAYLE SIMONE, The Valley Dispatch

METHUEN — All eyes were on the stairwell, waiting for Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Roger Noel to come home from a tour of duty in Iraq and into the arms of family and friends.

Little did they know his plane had arrived early at Boston’s Logan International Airport on Oct. 28 and he was standing behind them.”I had stepped outside. I came back in and there they were, just staring at the stairs,” Noel said. “I asked them what they were looking at. They answered me without turning around. It was funny when they realized it was me asking.”

That’s when the hugs and kisses commenced.

Noel was home from a seven-month tour in Iraq, where he has served with the U.S. Marines 8th Battalion. He had been away from his family — including his wife, Kristen — for almost a year.

He went to North Carolina in October of last year to train for his assignment as a Navy medic for a unit of U.S. Marines. While at training, he called Kristen with a question. “If I can get leave in December before I go to Iraq, will you marry me?”

Kristen’s response? “And of course I said yes.”

Roger and Kristen were married by a Justice of the Peace on Dec. 29, but the honeymoon was short because he needed to be back in North Carolina by New Year’s Day, then on to California for more training and eventually deployment in Iraq.

The 37-year-old petty officer enlisted in the Navy, after serving in the Army, because he felt compelled to serve.

“I felt the need to do something as an American. How can you call upon other people if you yourself are not willing to do it?” Noel said. “I couldn’t sit back and watch the news and watch history being made without at least getting a hand in it.”

Noel and the 8th Battalion spent all their time in and around Ramadi, a city about 100 miles west of Baghdad in the southwest portion of the Sunni Triangle.

“Ramadi is probably the worst area in Iraq right now,” Noel said. “The Iraqi people aren’t our enemies; they really aren’t. It’s the people outside of Iraq who look like the Iraqi people. It’s hard to tell the difference from those that need our help and the ones that don’t. It’s a lot harder to fight that kind of war.”

Noel said he thinks it’s harder on Kristen and the families at home than it is for the soldiers overseas.

“I believe deep down in my heart they have it much worse at home,” Noel said. “Because we’re busy every day; we’re always doing things and even when you’re not doing things, you’re thinking about your own mortality. We know they’re safe at home. It doesn’t leave your mind, but it’s not the forefront of it. When at home I think the first thing that comes to her mind is my mortality and what kind of danger am I in because she doesn’t know. She’s not there, so I think they have it much worse than we do.”

Kristen, 31, disagrees.

“I think he has it worse because at any given moment he could get shot and he always has to be alert,” she said. “I mean he could be sleeping or going to the bathroom or whatever and he always has to be careful for seven straight months. I couldn’t do it.”

When Noel finished his tour in Iraq he spent almost a month in California before arriving home in Methuen, just in time for his favorite holiday — Thanksgiving. “It’s all about giving, not what your getting,” Roger said. “All you’re doing is making a meal and having everyone around. I love Thanksgiving; there’s no anxiety. It’s just one family meal all in one day.”

Aside from the obvious, like his family and friends, Noel said the things he missed the most while he in Iraq were the simple things.

“I went into Linens and Things and it just blows your mind. The colors and the smells. It’s kind of overwhelming because you forget about it; you put all that stuff away when you leave.”

Before his current military stint, Noel was a paramedic in the emergency room at Lawrence General Hospital and was pursuing a degree in nursing. Kristen is a nurse there in the Intensive Care Unit.

Noel said their relationship evolved after years of knowing each other.”We were friends way before we decided to take it deeper than that,” he said. “I think that helps and I would recommend it to anyone to be friends first. Whatever happens you can’t break up the friendship; it’s been the driving force in our relationship.”

It’s a force that brought them together in marriage and now in Methuen, despite all the months and miles apart.