Walker Gillies -- civilian -- walked off a Northwest Airlink plane Friday morning under a blue and welcoming Minnesota sky.
As a U.S. Army sergeant with Charlie Company, First Battalion, 32nd Infantry, the Brainerd High School graduate spent 12 months in Iraq, following a nine-month stint in Kosovo during parts of 2001 and 2002.
Gillies, 22, said after serving in Iraq he was ready to enjoy stress-free time in northern Minnesota. While in Iraq, Gillies was involved in raids, force protection, traffic control and other military activities. The stress relief he experienced when he returned to Fort Drum in New York to be processed out of the Army was an immediate sensation.
"It's like a thousand pounds being taken off your back," Gillies said.
Gillies said U.S. forces are making progress in Iraq. He said he sees the United States' role over there as helping the new Iraqi government set up its government.
"We're just over there for the people," he said.
Greeting Gillies at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport were two Baxter men, Rob Norgon, a retired Pequot Lakes teacher who served 32 years in the Army Reserve, and Rich Kennedy, whose son, Adam, was a classmate and friend of Gillies.
Norgon, a friend and Army Reserve colleague of Gillies' stepfather, Brainerd High School teacher Dave LaShomb, offered to pick up the former soldier.
Rich Kennedy came with an American flag and a sign lauding Gillies as an American hero. Adam Kennedy, Inver Grove Heights, flew to Brainerd with the buddy he's known since sixth grade.
Gillies' mother, Marilyn LaShomb, lives in Las Vegas. His father, Boyce Gillies, lives in South Dakota. The ex-soldier said he hopes to join his father for some hunting this fall.
Having completed 4 1/2 years in the Army, Gillies plans to attend Inver Hills Community College in the Twin Cities in June. Until then, he plans to apply for a job at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.
However, his immediate plans were to enjoy civilian life and lunch Friday with his friends.
"I'm buying," Rich Kennedy said.
MIKE O'ROURKE can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5860.
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