Since the United States began its global war on terror more than a decade ago, hundreds of thousands of soldiers have gone overseas — to Afghanistan, Iraq and other places — to fight and protect this nation and its ideals.
Like the millions who went before them, to places like Europe, Africa, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam and Kuwait, they served long tours far from home and in precarious situations that require a level of bravery and courage many people can only admire.
They leave behind families — moms, dads, husbands, wives, siblings and children — who spend money and sometimes years worrying, praying and hoping for a safe return.
One of those families is the Buonpastores of Howard Beach. Their son KristainPeter, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, has served five tours of duty since joining the military 10 years ago: three in Afghanistan and two in Iraq.
On Friday, DiStefano-Buonpastore pulled up in front of Lenny’s Clam Bar on Cross Bay Boulevard. His mother, Ellen, ran into the street, grabbing her son as he stepped out of a gray Suburban. They embraced for what seemed like an hour.
DiStefano-Buonpastore had been on his fifth tour overseas for more than a year. His mother said this deployment to Afghanistan was the hardest of the five for DiStefano and his family.
The trip home didn’t go completely as planned. He was bumped from his original flight from Atlanta to JFK, instead flying into LaGuardia an hour and a half later than expected.
But when he finally did arrive at Lenny’s at 1:30 p.m., he was greeted as a hero. The Knights of Columbus conducted a sword ceremony as he, his mother, father Bobby and sister Arieanna walked into the restaurant.
DiStefano-Buonpastore was also greeted by Monsignor Al LoPinto, pastor of St. Helen Church, the members of the Broad Channel American Legion and VFW, state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) and Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Park).
A VFW color guard was there, as was an FDNY bagpiper.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn, Queens) also stopped by to welcome DiStefano-Buonpastore home with a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol in his honor.
“I can sleep now,” Ellen Buonpastore said after welcoming home her son. “I can finally sleep now.”
She said she wanted to have a big welcome home for her son because his fifth tour overseas was the most difficult.
“Those of you who know me know I always do things big,” she added.
DiStefano-Buonpastore greeted family and friends in the banquet room of Lenny’s overlooking Shellbank Basin. At one point when his mother jokingly reminded her two children that they weren’t “at home,” he snapped back, “I am home,” with a big smile.
The Buonpastores are a staunchly Catholic family proud of their Italian-American heritage, and Ellen Buonpastore said she prayed two novenas — five rosaries apiece, once in the morning and once at night — for her son’s safe return.
Also, in the Italian tradition, DiStefano-Buonpastore’s mother did not cut her hair for the length of time her son was overseas, as is tradition for women whose sons or husbands go to war. Hair is typically seen in Italian heritage as a sign of beauty and a soldier returning from war should see the women in their lives at their most beautiful — with their hair long. When the soldier returns home, he is tasked with cutting the woman’s hair and burning it, as a sign that his deployment is over and he is out of danger.
On Friday, Buonpastore had her son cut the tip of her long ponytail and place it in a plastic bag to be burned later.
“I want to thank all of you for being here to welcome me home,” said DiStefano-Buonpastore as he spoke to his friends and family.
He mentioned a fellow soldier he knew in Afghanistan, Carter Young, who died in battle.
“He did his very best,” DiStefano-Buonpastore said. “He lives on through the soldiers he protected. He made an impact.”