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Wounded Livermore Falls Soldier Gets Hero's Welcome Home
11/20/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Today, 24-year-old U.S. Army Sgt. Helaina Lake returned to home to Maine. She's spent the past five months recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland from injuries sustained in a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan. Lake suffered burns and severe injuries to the right side of her body, including a shattered leg. Her recovery isn't over, but her return marks the first time she's been home in more than a year. Patty Wight was at the Portland Jetport when Lake arrived.

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Sgt. Heliana Lake is surrounded by her father (left, holding Lake's son) and her sister (right, in white shirt) as she arrives at the Portland Jetport.

At the Portland Jetport mid-morning, it was clear that something important was happening, as dozens of firefighters in casual blue uniforms gathered in the arrivals section. One of them was South Portland firefighter Jeff Lake, Sgt. Helaina Lake's uncle. He says he never expected such an outpouring of support, not only from his fellow firefighters, but from around the state.

"It's really unbelievable, the amount of support and the amount of people that are just behind this little girl that went over there and served her country," he says. "And it's just unbelievable."

Helaina Lake was a volunteer firefighter herself before she was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. She had signed up for a second deployment when the suicide attack happened in June. Since then, her hometown of Livermore Falls has raised thousands of dollars to support her.

One group that helped fundraise was the Freeport Flag Ladies, who have greeted thousands of soldiers deploying or returning home since the 9/11 attacks. Flag Lady Elaine Greene says they came to the jetport to let Lake know they care.

"We're always glad to have them home, but I think a wounded warrior - it eats at your heart a little more because you know they've been through so much," Greene says. "Not that the others don't go through a lot, but they've got a lot of injuries, be it physical, they've got the emotional ones."

As the clock ticked towards Lake's arrival, family members gathered upstairs just outside the doors to the terminal. Lake's sister Kathrynn said she's most excited just to sit with Helaina around the table at home.

"You know, it's not the same when you fly down to the hospital to go see her, you know what I mean?" she says. "So just her being back in her own element and just being around friends and family, I think that's really what she needs right now."

As she waited, Kathrynn breathed out a heavy sigh, while others paced the floor and glanced through windows for any glimpses of Helaina. Then, finally, the doors opened and Helaina rolled out in a wheelchair, flanked by her mother and two-year old son, who had stayed with her at Walter Reed.

Family members came to Helaina one by one to give quiet hugs. Then Lake was taken downstairs and wheeled in between two receiving lines of firefighters and other supporters.

Lake smiled humbly and said she was tired, happy to be home, and overwhelmed by all who came to see her.

"I don't feel that I deserve it," she said quietly. "There's so many more people that deserve it more than me, and the lives that were lost the day I got injured, I think they're the heroes. I think they deserve it more."

Her homecoming was probably most anticipated by her father Bernal, who hadn't seen Lake for nearly 18 months. He was able to greet her in the jetbridge connecting the gate to her plane.

"I didn't see her coming up until she snuck up in back of somebody. But I see that big smile again, and that's all that matters," he said, choking up.

Lake's mother Jeannine was by her side at Walter Reed for most of the five months she was there and the 18 surgeries she endured.

"She came too close to never coming home," she says. "Yeah - really, too close. And we didn't really know how close until about a month ago. I'm glad I didn't know that then, because it was - really close."

After her welcome, Lake was taken to a waiting limousine, where a police escort led an entourage back to Livermore Falls.

Lake will return to Walter Reed for surgery for her elbow in January. She has more recovery ahead of her, but her mom says they celebrate the small accomplishments. Today, that's coming home.

Photo by Patty Wight.


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