HORACE Marco Maino was 26 when he left on a windy September afternoon in 1996.
Regina was proud of him but her heart moaned with anxiety and a feeling of emptiness gripped her at the uncertainty of what lay ahead.
Their sons Samson, two, and Martin, one, stood beside her as she carried their three-week old daughter Keziah close to her heart and bade her man goodbye.
Samson held on to his dad’s army helmet a bit longer than usual, not wanting to let go, but Regina held him back. “Never wanting to let go” had to be ignored this afternoon.
They say tears are the raindrops from the storm inside, but Regina did not cry.
That afternoon, husband and father 810160 Corporal Horace Marco Maino boarded a special flight out of Port Moresby with his comrades from Alpha Company, 1st Royal Pacific Island Regiment, bound for the war-torn island of Bougainville.
The conflict was into its eighth year and peace was on the agenda as negotiations continued with leaders of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). A ceasefire seemed likely.
At Taurama Army Barracks, Cpl Maino, section commander of 1RPIR A COY, was deployed with his company to man the post at Siara Junction Camp in north-west Bougainville.
On 23 October 1996, as ceasefire talks continued, Maino led his company into a rebel stronghold to meet with a BRA leader as part of the peace negotiations.
He never returned to Siara Junction camp.
His rifleman, 811502 Pte Jimmy Jula, along with 810828 Pte Raymond Waia, who were with him that afternoon, also disappeared.
Months passed, but Cpl Maino, Pte Jula and Pte Waia were never seen again.
Back at Taurama, the pride that once held Regina’s tears intact at the base of her heart burst open and darkness enveloped her world. Pure agony ruled all elements of her emotions.
She wanted that disappearance to be a bad dream from which she would soon awake.
Her heart begged, pleading that it was a mistake, that there was message coming soon which would say they have been found.
Regina believed that one day soon there would be an unexpected knock on the door, she would open it and there he would be, standing there, probably bearded and rugged like in the movies.
When I interviewed her for this story, Regina’s eyes glistened with tears and her lips trembled as she struggled to find words to describe the soreness, loneliness and despair that ate into her heart.
The months turned to years and that knock never came. Then finally in 1998, the three soldiers were declared ‘killed in action’.
Regina felt nothing more but pain as she and her three children began their unknown walk into a future without their father.
In mid-2000, Regina found a job with the Nongorr & Associates law firm as a legal secretary. She is still there today.
The three children turned into adults as Regina, who never married again, grew grey flowers in her hair and continued to hope deep inside that this man would one day come home to lie among his own people at Sohe in Oro Province.
Her prayers were answered. In October 2010, the remains of the three men were discovered in the custody of ex-combatants in the Hahon and Kunua areas of Bougainville.
Clearance was granted with the cooperation of the Autonomous Bougainville Government and the ex-combatants. This led to a successful forensic examination of the remains by the Australian Defence Force which confirmed that it was Cpl Marco Maino who lay at Kunua.
In 2013, the PNG national government issued instructions that the remains be recovered and repatriated.
At around 2 pm on Sunday 21 June 2015, the long wait that hovered like dark clouds over Regina and her children melted into the juddering sound of the chartered Air Niugini Fokker 100 as it touched down at Jacksons Airport, Port Moresby, after the two-hour flight from Bougainville.
Regina stood beside Samson, now 22, and studying information technology, Martin, 21, who works with Pride Furniture, and Keziah, 20, who cuddled her three-month-old baby girl just as she had been cuddled as her father left on that September afternoon in 1996.
As the plane slowly approached the PNGDF air transport wing, Regina felt a sudden gust of wind that softly touched her face before rustling through her greyish white hair. It felt like a hand she knew.
She smiled amidst the tears that ran freely down her cheeks as she welcomed her man home after 19 years.