PORTLAND — Each of Helaina Lake’s two flights Tuesday morning was barely an hour long, but they tired her out.
Still, she beamed as her wheelchair was rolled out of the arrival area of the Portland International Jetport shortly before noon, toward the relatives who rushed to greet her.
Lake, a 24-year-old Army sergeant from Livermore Falls, came home Tuesday for the first time in nearly a year. She was seriously injured in Afghanistan when a suicide bomber attacked her unit in June, killing several soldiers.
She had 18 surgeries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where doctors 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 2-year-old son, Aden, since summer.
“It’s the food I feed her,” she added.
There’s a lot more of Mom’s food coming for Lake, who will be home until January, when she must 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 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 who is Helaina’s uncle, said the family really didn’t do too much, even though the welcome included a contingent of first responders to cheer her through the airport terminal, a limousine and police escort to take her home, and arches formed by upraised fire truck ladders that her entourage passed under along the route from Portland to Livermore Falls.
“We’re 60 miles away,” said 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.”
Helaina 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 going 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.”
Livermore Falls has only about 3,000 residents, but on Tuesday it seemed that many of them were in Portland. More than a dozen firefighters were there, along with many 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 that nobody else would drive it.
“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 his ability to travel. He stayed at the family’s farm to tend the animals when his wife went to stay with Helaina as she recovered.
On Tuesday, he was the first one down the ramp to lead his daughter off the plane.
As the family made its 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.”
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: