For nearly all of his 42 years, Army Master Sgt. Ronald Gauthier has called Pepperell home; on Aug. 10, he finally set foot back on hometown soil after nine months spent deployed in Afghanistan and a month stationed in El Paso, Texas.
On Aug. 19, family and friends gathered at the VFW in Pepperell to give him a hero's welcome.
"I'm glad to be home," said Gauthier. "The first thing I wanted to do was run and jump in the water where I swam as a kid."
Before he could enjoy his time home, however, he said he had to pass some required medical exams.
"Basically, we come back and we talk to behavioral health guys trying to de-program us, trying to find out if any issues," he said.
Once he got the go-ahead from his doctors, he was finally able to take an overdue deep breath of Pepperell air and greet his family and friends -- the most thrilling part of returning home for Gauthier. And the feeling is mutual. Although this deployment, which began in October, was not the first time his loved ones had to bid farewell to Gauthier in his 18-year military career -- he is currently stationed in El Paso and has also been deployed to Bosnia -- his mother, Rachel Murphy, said it never gets any easier to have her son so far away.
"It was terrible (having him away). It really was, it was just stressful. But I'm so proud of him," she said. "He did an awesome job."
That he did; over this last deployment, Gauthier was awarded a Bronze star and was promoted
"They're talking about when I go back, taking over my own company," said Gauthier. "I'd be Alpha Company 141 (First Batillion, 41st Infantry) first sergeant. (This last deployment) I was Bravo Company, Second Platoon 141."
His stepfather, George Murphy, who used to be an Army equipment operator, said he is proud of all his stepson has accomplished.
"I can't believe he got that much rank," he said.
Although he missed his stepson throughout his deployment, Murphy said the experience was worse for Gauthier's mother.
"The wife doesn't handle it as good. I know he can take care of himself," he said.
Gauthier said his stepfather was the person who first inspired him to enlist in the military.
"My father (Murphy) made me," he joked about his reasons for joining. In a more serious vain, he added, "I was making a lot of money in shipping and receiving in Lowell and I started going in the wrong direction. I started figuring out maybe this wasn't the best thing for me. My dad suggested to me that I needed some discipline and he asked me to talk to some recruiters. It was probably one of the best decisions I've ever made."
By no means does that mean it's been easy, however; Gauthier said it's always difficult to be away from his family and his home, and the feeling is reciprocated.
"I was overwhelmed with emotions when he left. I was just devastated," said Gauthier's aunt, Stephanie Murphy. "When you're in the military, the devotion you have to give is just 24/7."
Luckily, with the technology available, Gauthier was able to maintain some contact with his loved ones, most frequently with his girlfriend of five years, Mary Dehoyos. Dehoyos, who was away on business in Taiwan when Gauthier was first deployed, said it was much more difficult to see him off after his brief return for rest and relaxation.
"I had to put him back on the plane and that's when it really hit me," she said. But since his promotion to master sergeant, she said, "Now he's in the position where we can Skype almost every day. It's much easier to have that face-to-face communication."
Although Gauthier and Dehoyos have recently bought a house in El Paso and will be returning on Aug. 30, Gauthier is happiest to be back in the town in which he grew up, surrounded by his loved ones.
"I'm excited (about the house) but not as excited as I am to be in Pepperell where there are trees and water," he said.
His return to El Paso will mark his return to his military duties.
"I'm going to be training for the next six months, and in nine months, they're talking about us maybe going back (to Afghanistan)," he said.
For now, however, Gauthier is enjoying his limited free time, saying he was excited to be attending the welcoming party.
"I'm just happy to see all my family and friends," he said.