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Welcome home for Foresthill soldier, one of last out of Iraq

Pfc. Tom Fitzinger, baseball star at Foresthill High, left closed air base as keys turned over to Iraqis
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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SACRAMENTO CA - Flying back from a nation torn by war to a homeland where peace on Earth and goodwill toward men was being celebrated, U.S. Army Pfc. Tom Fitzinger was itching for his United Airlines flight to touch down on California concrete Friday. Fitzinger was one of the last to leave Iraq after serving as a military police officer inside the already closed Camp Adder. This week, the Army turned the lights out, gave the Iraqi Air Force the keys, and Fitzinger was on the third-to-last vehicle in a convoy to Kuwait for the flight home. “We shut the gate and it was a good feeling,” Fitzinger said. “Everyone was going home.” At the Sacramento International Airport, Fitzinger was happily surprised to find not only friends and family there to greet him, but an honor guard of Patriot Guard Riders, who applauded his return in a gesture of support. There were hugs and tear-streaked faces amidst the flags and signs carried by many welcoming Fitzinger home. “This is far beyond what I had expected,” Fitzinger said. “It means a lot to me." Fitzinger, who led his Foresthill High School team to the Central Valley Christian League baseball title in 2007 with a Sac-Joaquin Section-leading .644 batting average, enlisted in the Army a year ago. By early October, the southern Iraqi air base shut down operations, including its Pizza Hut, Burger King and Taco Bell, leaving soldiers like Fitzinger, who were left to guard it, existing on packaged “MRE” military food and the odd granola bar. At home in Foresthill, the 22-year-old soldier’s family had a steak ready for grilling on the barbecue and plans for a pit stop at In N Out for a burger along the way. The next 21 days promise to be some of the most eventful of Fitzinger’s young life. – and also a short respite in his life as a soldier. On Jan. 11, Fitzinger will marry his fiancée, Christee Littlefield, of Foresthill. And then there will only be a few more days before leaving again for Fort Hood, Texas, the headquarters of the First Cavalry. There he’ll await new orders for deployment, which could include a tour of duty in Afghanistan. “I’m looking forward to settling down and taking it day by day,” Fitzinger said. “Everything’s easy from here on out.” Among the proud relatives, parents George and Lisa Fitzinger stood out. George served in Vietnam in the 9th Infantry, including the Tet Offensive. Lisa has traced the family’s U.S. military lineage back to the American Revolution. Fitzinger said his son wanted to join the military when he was 17. But he convinced him to go to school first. A year ago, Tom enlisted and was soon stationed in Iraq. “It’s fortunate that he survived the ordeal and, more importantly, served his country,” George Fitzinger said. For Vietnam veteran Tom Whitson, a member of the Sacramento Area Patriot Guard Riders, riding his motorcycle through the cold to greet a returning vet meant “everything.” More than 100 times this past year, the guard has turned up for an emotional welcoming like Fitzinger’s. “It’s one way I can give back and show support for the troops,” Whitson said. Fitzinger’s arrival as one of the last Iraq troops to return was also covered by several Sacramento TV stations. Many members of the public in the airport lobby also applauded as he arrived. “It means a lot to me to have the support at home,” Fitzinger said. “And I appreciate all the soldiers who have served before me. It’s nice to be home and it’s nice to be out of the desert.” Honoring our heroes This is the final article in a week-long series to honor those who’ve served and those who gave their lives during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. To read more stories, view photos and watch video, visit www.auburnjournal.com. Sunday – How does the community help? A look at what’s available for veterans Monday – A father remembers his son Tuesday – Family keeps soldier at home year-round Wednesday – Wife carries on husband’s memory Thursday – A look at local soldiers who’ve lost their lives Friday – A Gold Star parent keeps traditions alive Sunday – A soldier comes home