SOUDA BAY, CRETE, Greece --
Tears of joy streamed down the old Grecian mother’s face as she held the hand of her son, whom she hadn’t seen in seven years. The reunion was bitter sweet as she was about to say goodbye to him once again. The visit lasted only a few minutes. In fact, the journey to get there took longer – but it was worth it for Vaya Papakostas to see her son.
When Vasileios Papakostas left his home in Larisa, Greece, 12 years ago, he never imagined he would be returning as an infantryman with 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, based out of Camp Lejeune, NC. Nor did he think a week ago that he would be boarding USS Kearsarge destined for the Mediterranean Sea either. But on March 4, both of these scenarios were unfolding right before his eyes.
“I didn’t know where I was headed when we boarded the plane, but when we got to the barracks (in Souda Bay) I asked to use the phone,” said the lance corporal with Heavy Gun Platoon, Weapons Company. “I just wanted to tell my family that I made it safe and that I was in Greece.”
Aristedis asked his son if he would be able to visit, but Papakostas said no.
“I told them I was getting on a ship and wasn’t sure how long we were going to be there in port,” said Papakostas.
They were taken from the barracks the next day by bus to the port were they boarded USS Kearsarge. They spent the next few hours getting settled onto the ship. The unit was recently called upon to augment 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which currently has Marines supporting operations in Afghanistan and others helping evacuate Egyptians, who fled to the Tunisian border from Libya, back to their homeland.
The next day, the Marines were cleaning weapons as sailors prepared the ship to leave.
“I was going over weapons procedures, when this captain came running up to me,” said Papakostas. “He said, ‘do you want to see your parents?’ I said my parents live on the mainland sir. He said, ‘they are outside, come with me.’ And he took off running again. So I followed behind him.”
As he ran to the ramp, he could see his family on the pier. Heart racing, Papakostas quickly saluted the duty while requesting to go ashore and then turned to salute the ensign on the ship’s fantail.
It was then he learned that the ship was supposed to be pulling away, but was held for a few minutes so he could see his family.
“My mom and dad both kissed me a million times. My mom was crying. My dad was crying,” he said. “It was a weird feeling after not seeing them for so long.”
At the age of 16, after graduating high school in Greece, Papakostas went to study abroad and lived with family friends in New Britain, Connecticut, so he could go to school. Before he could start college in the U.S., he was required to attend two years of American high school.
In 2001, Papakostas graduated high school again and headed for University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas. In 2004, shortly after he earned an associate degree in International Business, Papakostas married his wife, Marliza of McAllen, Texas. They had their son, Ethan, soon after. Papakostas went to work setting up security systems to earn money for his growing family.
It was the birth of his son, which brought Papakostas’s family from Greece to the U.S. for a visit – the last time he saw his family before the quick kiss on the pier.
In 2009, he decided to follow a dream that was inspired by a college friend seven years before – to join the Marine Corps.
He explained that he didn’t join before then, because of school, his new wife and then son.
At the age of 27, a husband and a father, Papakostas was not the typical recruit at recruit training or the School of Infantry.
“Being older gives you a different perspective,” said Papakostas. “The hard part was just keeping up with the 18 and 19-year-olds.”
Papakostas arrived at his current unit in August of 2009. The battalion started deployment training that month. In March of 2010, he deployed to Afghanistan and returned in October.
He took leave in December to see his family who still lives in Texas. Just a couple months later, on Feb. 28 at 5 p.m., Papakastas got the word they were headed to join 26th MEU. By noon the next day, the first wave had already left.
It was a whirlwind experience, but Papakostas looks at it as just another chapter in his story to tell.
“It was a great experience. I am really happy about seeing my family and hope to see them again soon,” said Papakostas.