There were cheers, tears and applause on Friday as members of the First Battalion Battery A of the 194th Field Artillery returned home to loved ones and friends after a year’s deployment as peacekeepers in Kosovo.
An official Welcome Home ceremony was held in Estherville on Friday afternoon, but the festivities began as the two busloads of troops began their final ride home Friday morning.
As part of the welcome, a group of Patriot Guard Riders gathered in Emmetsburg starting at noon, waiting for the troops’ to arrive in Emmetsburg, at which time the riders would join the procession to escort the troops to Estherville and the homecoming. Some 20 members of the Patriot Riders waited as law enforcement agencies on the troops’ route of travel began reporting their progress.
At noon, the two charter buses had left Fort Dodge, and began their northward trek. At Humboldt, the buses turned west on Highway Three, picking up an escort from the Pocahontas County Sheriff’s Office into Pocahontas, where the caravan turned northward on Highway Four.
At the county line just south of Mallard, Palo Alto County Sheriff Dennis Goeders and Iowa State Trooper Doug Drost waited for the caravan, and took over the escort shortly before 1 p.m.
The word quickly spread that that troops had reached Mallard, as a Pocahontas County deputy reported that the bus drivers, “were leaning on it” to get the troops back home.
The caravan quickly ate up the miles from Mallard to Emmetsburg, arriving at the south edge of Emmetsburg at 1:05 p.m. The Patriot Guard Riders quickly scooted in front and alongside the charter buses and the procession moved north up Broadway, with the sirens wailing and lights flashing as people along Broadway and Main Streets waved, cheered and in some cases, cried as the buses passed through the city.
The pace picked up again as the caravan departed Emmetsburg and turned northward on Highway Four again. Coming into Graettinger, Emmet county deputies took over the escort and brought the buses the rest of the way into Estherville, along with the Patriot Guard Riders.
With around a thousand friends, family members and area residents waiting at Hoyt Luithly Field in Estherville, the troops disembarked from the buses at 1:45 p.m.and marched in formation onto the field in front of the cheering audience.
The atmosphere on Friday was a complete opposite of the departure of the 75 local citizen soldiers back on June 20 of last year, when the group was deployed and left the area.
The welcome home ceremony featured the singing of the Star Spangled Banner by Diane Nicol of Graettinger, with an invocation by the Rev. Joel Jorgenson, which asked for God’s blessings on this country, on our freedoms, for soldiers past and present and for these soldiers who have returned home safely.
Estherville Mayor Lyle Hevern offered Estherville’s grateful thanks and sincere appreciation for the troops involvement overseas. He also thanked the families for the sacrifice they endured in one year’s time.
Also addressing the crowd and the troops was Iowa Army National Guard Lt. General Steve Saunders.
“We are in the presence of heroes because everyone had a role,” General Saunders noted. The general noted that the families of the troops did their part as well during the deployment, keeping it together at home by celebrating birthdays and attending ball games and family gatherings, so that the troops could do their job in Kosovo without too much worrying about the families.
“There’s one last mission to be completed and that is to reunite with these soldiers who need to get reacquainted with families and friends; to be back 100 percent again,” General Saunders said, and promptly dismissed the troops to begin the joyful reunions to cheers, whistles, hugs and tears.