JACKSON - The Jackson/Fairmont Red Bull brigade received a rock star's welcome when they came home Sunday morning. From the police, fire and Patriot Guard parade through town to the screaming cheers from the Olson Pavilion at Jackson County Fairgrounds, when the troops literally came marching in, the local National Guard unit received a very enthusiastic welcome home.
"At first I thought the Jackson County Fair got started early this year," said SFC Wes Schaffer, as he hugged one of his daughters. "There was just that many people here."
The families and loved ones were set up at the Fairgrounds and nearby Jackson County Armory for at least two hours before the troops arrived. But two hours was nothing compared to the year of waiting at home while the brigade was stationed in Kuwait.
Guardsman Rob Grover shares a kiss with his wife Kate upon his return home from a year-long deployment for the Jackson/Fairmont Red Bulls National Guard Unit.
"We're obviously excited," said Stacey Freeman, wife of Sergeant Jim Freeman. "But it'll be an adjustment; both for him and the family. He's taking some time off, we're going to do some camping ... Take a few vacations. But we'll see how long he can stay away. He likes to be busy."
The Red Bull brigade flew in from Mississippi early Sunday and arrived in Jackson at 11:30 a.m.
"We were going to have them out on the race track, but the race track is now a lake," said SFC Kirk Dunlavey, who helped organize the homecoming event. "Fortunately, the Jackson County Fairgrounds is gracious enough to let us use the Olson Pavilion. We knew about four or five days ago and had plans, but we don't know exactly when they are coming home until 48 hours before. We usually get a 48-hour notice."
As the final hours ticked away, families and friends continued to bond at the Armory.
"We became friends when they first deployed," said Rachel Wessel of St. James, who was helping Jachie McKnight of Kansas make a poster for her husband. Wessel is planning to marry Guardsman Avery Herrig in November. McKnight had only been married to her husband a few weeks before he was deployed.
"I drove all day yesterday from Kansas, through all the severe weather," McKnight said.
Captain Joseph Beatty led the troops in their final formation into the pavilion and had a few words to share before they were dismissed.
"Bravo Battery 125, you performed well," Beatty said. "Our time there was nearly flawless, with no accidents and no injuries. You've shown yourselves to be a flexible and self-disciplined force that can accomplish a mission."
Special thanks was also given to the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon organizations in Jackson and Martin counties, along with those members of the Red Bull brigade who stayed behind. Beatty said the organizations and individuals were the core of helping the soldiers and their families during the mission - and in the days and weeks to come.
"There is one more challenge for you: reintegration, and these people around us today need to help. ... You're going to hit that wall and think there's no one there to help you. That's when you need to ask for help. Reach out to the families around you and those you've just been with. The worst-case scenario here is if we lose a soldier or a family."
But in the moments after the final dismissal, there were smiles, tears, and laughter. Couples and families separated by the deployment embraced, and parents and grandparents received hearty hugs and backslaps from the soldiers.
"I can honestly say I sent my grandson (Guardsman Brian Rhinehardt) a letter every single week," said Bessie Rhinehardt of Dunnell. "Sunday night just happens to be my letter-writing night. I don't mind missing it tonight."