Arriving in Brainerd a half-hour ahead of schedule, no one could blame the 27 soldiers of Higher Headquarters Co. 1-194th Armor Combined Arms Battalion (HHC 1-194 AR CAB) for being anxious to finally return home.
These soldiers, who stepped off a bus on a gray, windy Friday afternoon, represented the last of the Brainerd-based battalion’s soldiers to return home from Kuwait and Iraq. They were escorted by emergency personnel and motorcyclists with the Minnesota Patriot Guard after completing a nearly year-long deployment as part of Operation New Dawn, the largest military draw-down since the Vietnam War.
Speaking briefly as friends and family members cheered and patiently waited to embrace their returning heroes, Capt. Ryan Rossman praised his troops’ work during their 336 days of deployment.
“You put your lives on hold to stand up to do something that less than half a percentage of the population has ever done; to go overseas and defend the country you love,” he said.
He said they drove 1.2 million miles, escorted 20,000 trucks and completed thousands of missions throughout Iraq — all without any loss of equipment or personnel.
During their service, Rossman said, they transitioned from convoys to a mobile reaction force, as a deterrent against hostilities.
“You all stepped up and performed the roles that were assigned to you,” he said. “It wasn’t a glamorous job, but you did it anyway.”
Next, the battalion commander, Maj. Tadd Vanyo, and Command Sgt. Maj. John Lepowsky unfurled the battalion colors and returned them to their place in the Brainerd Armory.
“Remember Bataan,” Maj. Vanyo cried out.
“Never forget,” the soldiers responded.
At last, the cue for the emotional reunions between soldiers and family members was delivered by Rossman.
“And now, the words you’ve waited to hear for 11 months: ‘Dismissed,’” he said.
The soldiers, sometimes referred to as the Red Bulls, were among more than 250 soldiers in the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division.
Tears and hugs followed as one family held up its sign for Sgt. 1st Class Mike Foust. “Welcome home Mike, husband, father and hero.” Scrawled underneath those letters someone had written “son and uncle and brother.”
One woman could hardly believe this moment had come.
“I’m so proud of you,” she told her soldier. “And you’re here.”
Rossman, of Breezy Point, wasted no time reacquainting himself with his wife and children, including a daughter who will turn 1 on May 14 and who was about 2 weeks old when he left on deployment.
This was Rossman’s second deployment, having gone to Iraq in a tour of duty that lasted from October of 2005 until July of 2007.
It was the third deployment for Vanyo of New Brighton. His wife Renae, and three of his four children drove up to Brainerd for the homecoming with Maxwell, the oldest back home for a Scouting commitment.
The kids who were able to make the trip to Brainerd, Trent, 10; Jacob, 6, and Nicole, 3, were talking of plans to go fishing and see Mount Rushmore with their dad. The 10-year-old spoke for all of them when asked if they were glad their dad was home.
“Yes, definitely,” Trent Vanyo said.
Emotions were running high, even for those who weren’t related to any of the soldiers.
Six members of the Minnesota Patriot Guard met the soldiers’ bus at the county line and helped escort them into town. Another 10 motorcyclists were waiting with flags at the armory.
For Justin Doerfler of Brainerd, the ceremony was meaningful because he had served in the National Guard from 1997-2003 and because he “knew a couple of guys on the bus.”
Randy Haag of Cuyuna could barely contain his enthusiasm after completing his motorcycle escort duties.
“This is the most awesome thing I have ever done,” he said.