There's something different about Merrill Healy.
After his nearly five years in the Marines and a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan, Healy's friends and family could see a change in the Oak Forest native and 2005 graduate of Oak Forest High School.
"Ask anybody," said his cousin and fellow Marine Russ Hittinger, "They could tell he's grown up."
On Sunday, Sept. 4, 23-year-old Healy graciously accepted the well wishes and welcoming cheers of a crowd of family, friends and local veterans groups outside Blarney Stone Pub in Oak Forest.
Healy appeared flustered and humbled by the homecoming celebration, which was planned by Soldiers Guardian Angels.
"By no means am I worthy of this," Healy told the crowd after a motorcycle escort lead him to the pub. "I would feel remiss if I didn't make mention of those guys out there that aren't coming home to see stuff like this. And those guys out there that are coming home, but are a little banged up. Wow. Just ... wow."
Hittinger, who will retire from the Marines in October after 23 years of service and traveled from New York for the homecoming, noticed Healy's humility.
"This is definitely a big day for him," Hittinger said. "I can tell he's been overwhelmed with the moment."
Healy was a team member of the Radio Battalion. The battalion consists of linguists and signal analysts who identify enemy activity. If they confirm hostile intentions, they pass it onto the unit they are supporting; that unit takes action as required. Radio Battalions consist mainly of signals intelligence and electronic intelligence operators organized into smaller tactical units with different roles. Healy is fluent in Arabic and the Afghani tribal language Pashto.
For his grandmother Lorie Wilson, Healy's homecoming was a weight lifted.
"It's a long seven months of worrying and wondering," she said.
Wilson greeted Healy earlier in the weekend, during a more private family gathering.
"I gave him a big hug, and realized we got him home safe and sound," she said.
Healy's aunt and uncle, Bev and John Huiner, had a son, Healy's cousin, return from Afghanistan.
"We know the feeling," Bev Huiner said. "There's so much more pride. They embrace the soldiers. These guys choose to do this, they're not drafted. You've got to give them credit for doing this."
Healy recently re-enlisted for another five years.
"It suits me well," he said. "I had a great experience out there, my guys helped me out a lot. I never would have thought I'd be where I am today. It unlocks so many doors."
Hittinger said he wouldn't have missed the event, and a chance to recognize Healy.
"He's been doing an excellent job in the Marines," Hittinger said. He's proud to have another Marine in the family.
"The Marine Corps is a generational organization. Old guys like me, it's our job to train young guys like him. It's our responsibility to turn the Marine Corps over to young guys like him. We take that responsibility very seriously."
His mother Barb Huiner stood among a crowd of his biggest fans Sunday.
"I am so proud to be his mother," she said. "I'm so proud of his choices, and I support him."
Healy was quick to call to mind those who might not experience the rush of a motorcycle, police and fire escort down the streets of their hometown.
"But as we progress throughout the day, and whenever you get time, throughout the week stop and think," Healy said. "Sometimes we forget about what's really going on over there. Just remember those families and those dudes that aren't coming home ... Keep them in your minds, in your prayers and their families, as well."