9-month tour of duty in Kuwait ends with crowds, flags, fireworks, and celebration
Photos & text by Brian DeLoche, Cass County Star-Gazette
A steady stream of people filed through the side door of a small commercial aircraft hangar on the grounds of Capital Airport in Springfield, Illinois July 18. Once inside, most huddled together in small family groups. There were the wives and girlfriends or fiancés (and in some cases husbands). There were sons and daughters, and moms and dads, too.
It was a diverse group of people from all walks of life who might not otherwise have much in common. But on this night they had a single unifying purpose. They were all there to welcome a soldier home.
Their soldiers comprised the 3637th Support Maintenance Company, a unit of the Illinois Army National Guard, that had just completed a nine-month deployment to Kuwait.
Everyone in the building knew the plane carrying the unit had touched down safely at the airport, and each knew it was only a matter of time before collectively they could lay eyes on their soldiers.
They also knew there would be a brief ceremony they would have to endure, a formality that only added to the excitement. Then came the announcement that asked the crowd to face the flag for the singing of the national anthem. As a hush fell across the room, one could hear a solo voice singing those all too familiar words, “Oh say can you see,” but as the song continued, other voices joined. And with each stanza still more joined, until, what was mostly a crowd of listeners, was now a chorus of hundreds.
Moments later, there was the unmistakable sound of electric motors engaging, and all could see the hangar’s huge horizontally-paneled door slowly begin to rise. And as the door rose, so did the palpable level of excitement inside. Children seated on the floor leaned forward to see under the door’s bottom edge, and as the door rose, older children, then adults, leaned their heads forward, all wanting to see the loved ones they knew were on the other side.
Once the door reached head height, a roar washed over the crowd like an ocean wave; cell phone-filled hands were raised in the air, with their built-in camera flashes creating points of light that seemed to dance across the room.
With the door now raised, the soldiers stood in company formation, silhouetted against the fading light of the evening sky.
Then came introduction of the military dignitaries; the general spoke, and the chaplain offered a prayer.
It’s likely, however, no one remembers anything that was said after that door went up. At that point, everyone there was listening for the unit commander to say just two words:
With those words, the two groups of people once separated by thousands of miles, who were now separated by only a few feet, rushed toward one another.
Then came the hugs and the kisses as spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, and fiancés (through tear-filled eyes) tightly embraced one another. Children clung to dad’s or mom’s hands and legs and soldiers tenderly touched the faces they’d not seen for nine months.
The emotional then gave way to the logistical as soldiers again left their families to retrieve their baggage. For most, though, there were still surprises to come.
Along the route from the airport, American flags dotted the roadsides, along with groups of people who turned out to welcome the soldiers home and symbolically thank them for their service.
And in each town along Illinois Route 125, the crowds grew in size as loosely organized welcome home celebrations began.
In Virginia, however, the welcome began well before the town’s soldiers could see the crowd that awaited them. As soon as the lights from the escorting firetrucks and police vehicles could be seen in the distance, fireworks filled the night sky near the Havana National Bank and continued until the procession had passed. Crowds filled the street from the Route 78 junction all the way to the courthouse where still more hugs, more kisses, and more handshakes awaited along with DJ-supplied music.
Gradually, the crowd thinned and the excitement of the moment faded into the quiet of the night.
The soldiers were safely home.
(Publisher’s note: Star-Gazette editor Brian DeLoche is a retired Illinois Army National Guardsman with twenty one years total military service time. Ironically, he began his career in the Illinois Guard with what was then known as Detachment 1, 3637th Maintenance Company in Beardstown, in January of 1979.)
Special thanks to Kelly Cagle, who’s well-timed message made coverage of this story possible.