Wearing his desert camouflage uniform and a big grin across his face, Staff Sgt. Mike Hartwig of Pequot Lakes walked confidently off the airplane and into the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport arrival area Tuesday night.
He walked straight into the open arms of his wife, Jacinta, causing a flurry of clapping and cheers that arose from his family, friends and perfect strangers who just happened to be there.
Hartwig, 27, is one of eight Army Reservists with Company A, 367th Engineer Battalion in Brainerd who returned home Tuesday after a year of active duty in Iraq attached to the 489th Engineer Battalion based in Conway, Ark. Hartwig was the only soldier who arrived by plane in Brainerd Tuesday. He said the others found alternative transportation, such as driving home from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.
The rest of the Brainerd unit was deployed last month for active duty in Afghanistan.
Hartwig's parents, Dennis and Mary Hartwig of Pequot Lakes, along with his wife and about a dozen or so family and friends welcomed him home Tuesday night at the airport.
When Jacinta Hartwig leaped into her husband's arms, clinging to him with her legs wrapped around his waist, there were few dry eyes in the airport. Even strangers waiting to board the plane appeared a little misty-eyed.
The Hartwigs were married on Feb. 20, 2003, during a civil ceremony at the Crow Wing County Courthouse, five days before Mike Hartwig left for Fort Hood, Texas. He arrived in Kuwait last April and then was sent to Iraq a month later. He guarded prisoners of war along the Syrian border for awhile and also was involved in the removal of roadside bombs in Iraq.
Hartwig was able to come home on a 15-day leave in October.
He wasn't supposed to return home until mid-May but found out last month he and the rest of the battalion were being shipped out. He arrived back in Fort Hood on Thursday.
Hartwig, a 1994 Pequot Lakes High School graduate, works for Kuepers Construction. While he and his wife were engaged before they learned he was to be deployed last year, they quickly married at the courthouse before he left.
Jacinta said they were both planning to take some time off work during the next few weeks to get to know one another again. During their year of marriage, they've only been together abut 20 days. She said they are planning to have a church wedding within the next year and go on the honeymoon they never had time for before her husband was deployed.
"It's a big relief to have him home," said his mother, Mary. "We've spent a lot of time watching CNN," added his father, Dennis. "It's been a long year."
"You ready to do some fishing now?" Corey Larson, Pequot Lakes, asked his best friend shortly after he arrived at the airport.
Hartwig said the night before he left Fallujah, Iraq, a rocket blew up about 30 meters from the building he was in.
"It was getting better," said Hartwig, of the conditions in Iraq. "But they're aim was getting better, too."
Hartwig said on his way home to Brainerd he received many pats on the back and "Thank yous" from other passengers. On the flight from Minneapolis to Brainerd, he said the passengers on the plane forced him to stand up, explain where he's been and what it felt like to be coming home. "It's been a long time," said Hartwig. "I feel like I'm still in a dream world."
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