By Paul Wood
Thursday, May 4, 2006
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URBANA – Bryan Abbott is a tough guy who had two Humvees shot out from under him, and won a medal for saving a soldier's life while under fire, but he was all tears today.
The Ivesdale man is a medic in the 2nd Battalion, 130th infantry's headquarters company, and when his wife Brenda met him at the Urbana Army National Guard Armory, they sobbed in each other's arms, silently, eyes shut, for a few minutes after his unit returned from Iraq at 11 a.m.
Abbott, 45, is much older than most of his peers, and his fellow Blackhawk Battalion soldiers call him "dad." His real family took turns hugging him before Brenda got the full hug treatment.
"It's only for a couple of hours; after that he's all mine," she said.
The Blackhawks, gone for nearly a year and a half, filed into the armory silently at 11 a.m. Once they were all collected, they ended the silence by shouting "Blackhawk!"
A welcome ceremony, in which officers praised the unit for unusual bravery, took less than 10 minutes. A more lengthy ceremony will be held Aug. 13, after the soldiers have a chance to be with their families.
Amid the tearful, happy family groups this morning, Jason Reynolds of Danville got his first welcome-home hug from his 6-year-old daughter, Gabby, and then he lifted his 1-year-old son, Trace, in his arms.
"He's huge, and she's got her hair cut short now," he says with a smile of the children he hasn't seen since he was home on leave last September.
Minutes later, Trace – undaunted by the swarm of people all around him – toddled a few feet across the floor to his dad, and Reynolds caught his baby boy in his arms. It was the first time he'd gotten to see him walk.
Reynolds' family had a few anxious moments as they searched for him in the sea of people at the armory, and he searched for them.
"I think he went one way and we went the other," said his mother, Margaret Houpt of Danville.
Houpt, who stood back to let her son hug his wife, Nikki, and children, first, said she was very proud of him. And very excited to have him back home.
While he was gone, he would send pictures showing bomb craters home to her, she said.
"I'd tell him, Jason, don't stand there."
Earlier in the morning, U.S. soil was a mighty welcome sight to Staff Sgt. Michael Hattenbach, one of 170 National Guard troops who arrived at Willard Airport this morning.
Hattenbach, 34, of Raymond, has been in Iraq and away from his family since January 2005 and was looking forward to seeing his wife Rachel and two children, who were waiting for him at the armory.
Hattenbach, a truck driver, said he's looking forward to getting back to a normal life.
"It's a real relief to be back and be able to go somewhere and not hear a boom and not have a rifle across my back," he said.
The Hattenbachs will vacation next week in Texas.
At Willard, the troops got into formation for their final orders – among them, all sunglasses off and berets on for the welcome-home ceremony. And Christopher Henkel, the unit's commanding officer, kept his parting remarks brief.
"Glad you all got back," he said. "I'm not going to give you a long speech. Thank you for everything."
A Decatur firefighter and 19-year member of the National Guard, Henkel said the troops were just "real happy to be home."
While families gathered at the armory, Savoy grandmother Dorothy Schroeder went to the airport even though she didn't know any of the troops getting off the plane.
Schroeder said she went right up to two younger-looking guys just off the plane, and gave them both a big hug.
"I just wanted to see them. They've done great and we're glad to see them home," she said. "I wish they were all home."
Hours before the unit returned, family members were working to make sure their return would bring tears of joy to their eyes.
Along with more than 1,600 yellow ribbons along the return route and a huge banner at Willard Airport, friends and family of the company filled the Urbana Armory with balloons, posters and personal messages.
Beth Hanson, who runs the Family Readiness Group for the unit, was up at 6 a.m. Wednesday and worked into the night at the armory, where signs read "Welcome Home Sgt. Todd Claxon" and "Daddy, Look How I've Grown."
Spc. Michael Bennett, 20, of Hanover Park, who was with the 178th Battalion but returned with the group at Willard today, also had family waiting at the armory.
"I'm excited," he said. "It still hasn't hit me yet." He was a gunner with more than 250 successful missions with no injuries.
"We did our job the best we could," he said.
Kelly Rund, family assistance center representative for the National Guard, said family members were asked to wait at the armory rather than go to the airport.
Hundreds of family members swarmed the armory, where yellow was the dominant color. A local florist provided yellow roses for soldiers to hand to their loved ones, and red, white and blue balloons were released outside the armory, one for every soldier, when the buses arrive.
Cakes donated by local grocery stores read "Hooh-Ah To Our Hometown Veterans" and "Welcome Home Blackhawks," the longtime nickname for the Urbana unit.
The Urbana unit left in January 2005, spent a few months getting specialized training at Fort Stewart, Ga., journeyed to Kuwait, and then spent more than a year in Iraq, leading the top man in the Illinois National Guard, Adjutant General Randal Thomas, to single them out as heroes, especially for relentlessly searching for Iraqi insurgent weapons caches, including the improvised explosive devices that have killed many U.S. soldiers.
They also ran security for the First Marine logistics group.
"I am walking 9 inches off the ground," said Susan Sondag, whose youngest son Sgt. Shannon Baer returned today. She decorated her home, "to the nines," she said for Baer, a restaurant manager.
Baer turned 33 just as the unit was leaving Iraq for Georgia.
His mother asked him what he wanted for his birthday."
"I got what I wanted," he told her.
Kelly Godwin worked with Hanson to erect a banner the Urbana soldiers could see upon landing at Willard, reading "Hooh-Ah!" and welcoming the soldiers.
"These guys have really been missed," Godwin said.
Paris' 1344th trucking company lost five soldiers in combat, but Hanson said there was only one death in about 170 members of the Urbana unit, a Chicago soldier who died of non-combat injuries.
"We are so blessed that our guys are coming home safe and sound," Hanson said.
There were some serious injuries, including Garrett Anderson of Bellflower, who lost his lower right arm and suffered other injuries when his vehicle hit a bomb on Oct. 15 in Iraq.
Anderson and another wounded soldier, both of whom returned stateside for recuperation, were to join the bus caravan at Willard to experience the homecoming with their fellow Guard soldiers.
"They'll all be together for the reunion," Hanson said.
Sam Anderson, Gary's wife, said her husband is still receiving treatment for his injuries. He returned from Walter Reed military hospital this week, and has a job waiting for him at Meijer.
Ron Hitch spent four hours arranging 612 balloons in the shape of the American flag. His son's company, Balloon Creations, donated the balloons, as well as another 250-balloon setting.
Hitch, who lost an eye in the Vietnam War, said it was the least he could do for the troops.
"I want them to have a nice welcome back," he said.
Shelby Otis of Champaign, who greeted her husband Spc. Mike Otis, had their son Jackson, 5, with her.
His understanding of the situation is that his dad is a "shooter" – mom corrected that to gunner – and they're going to welcome him by taking him to Chuck E. Cheese in Bloomington.
Her husband was able to get leave earlier.
"I didn't find out about the dangerous parts until he was home," Shelby said.
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Thread: Bringing Home The 130th
05-04-2006, 07:11 PM #1
Bringing Home The 130th
05-04-2006, 07:12 PM #2
Thank you to all the fire and police departments from all over to bring these fine young men and women home. It was a HUGE success!
(Sorry, I thought I put this in the Illinois thread) Anyway, Thanks to All!
Last edited by tfpd109; 05-04-2006 at 07:14 PM.
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