PORTLAND — Helaina Lake’s two flights Tuesday morning were each barely an hour long, but they tired her out.
Still, she beamed as her wheelchair was rolled out of the arrival area of Portland International Jetport shortly before noon toward the relatives who rushed to greet her.
Lake, an Army sergeant from Livermore Falls, came home Tuesday for the first time in nearly a year. She had been sent to Afghanistan, where she was seriously injured after a suicide bomber attacked her unit in June, killing several soldiers.
That was followed by 18 surgeries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where doctors have worked to repair broken bones and treat burns.
“She’s made a lot of progress. Even the doctors are impressed,” said Jeannine Lake, Helaina’s mother, who has been staying with her daughter in Maryland, along with Lake’s two-year-old son, Aden, since summer.
“It’s the food I feed her,” she added.
There’s a lot more of Mom’s food ahead for Lake, who will be home until January, when she needs to return to Walter Reed for more surgery and rehab. She’s now able to walk, Jeannine Lake said, but only a few steps at a time.
The return to Maryland seemed far off Tuesday for relatives who mobilized a full-scale welcome home on short notice. The hospital told the Lakes less than 10 days ago that she would be allowed to return to Maine for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Jeff Lake, a South Portland firefighter and Lake’s uncle, said the family really didn’t do too much, even though the welcome home included a contingent of local first responders to cheer her through the terminal, a limousine and police escort to take her home and several arches formed by upraised fire truck ladders that her entourage crossed under along the entire route from Portland to Livermore Falls.
“We’re 60 miles away,” marveled her brother, Charles Lake, as he waited for his sister in the terminal. “Nobody knows her and there are people lining the road to greet her.”
“It’s unbelievable,” said Jeff Lake, who arranged to have two South Portland fire trucks form an arch on the way out of the airport. “All you’ve got to do is whisper and things happen.”
Livermore Falls has a population of only about 3,000 people, but on Tuesday, it seemed many of them were in Portland. More than a dozen firefighters were there, along with may of Lake’s aunts and uncles.
Even the limo driver was from Livermore Falls. Damon Rodzen said he works for Atlantic Limo and when the order came in for a sleek stretch Chrysler for Lake, he knew nobody else would sit behind the wheel.
“When I found out that she was coming home, I called in,” said Rodzen, whose younger brother went to school with Lake.
Bernal Lake hadn’t seen his daughter for nearly a year because his restless leg syndrome limits the amount of travel he can handle. He stayed at the family farm to tend the animals when his wife went to stay with Lake as she recovered.
On Tuesday, he was the first down the ramp to lead his daughter off the plane.
But soon he was holding a shy Aden, who played with a key chain in the shape of a cowboy boot while reporters, photographers and videographers crowded around his mother.
Lake said she was just looking forward to enjoying the holiday. She brushed aside talk of a “hero’s welcome.”
“So many other people deserve it more than me,” she said.
Lake said her recovery is proceeding well, and she appreciated the outpouring of support Tuesday and thanked everyone who had supported her and her family over the last five months.
“It’s good to be home,” she said. “It’s been hard to wait.”
As the family made their way out of the terminal, Bernal Lake had his arms full with Aden and Jeannine Lake was carrying blankets and jackets.
So it fell to Maurice Castonguay — another uncle — to push Lake’s wheelchair, a task he was happy to do.
“She’s also my goddaughter,” he said as he helped get Lake situated in the limo. “I made a promise to take care of her.”