For dozens of local troops with the 213th Air Defense Artillery and the hundreds of family members and friends who gathered to greet them, Friday, Sept. 7 was a homecoming of epic proportions.American flags, star-spangled balloons and "Welcome Home" signs filled the crowd of grandparents, parents, husbands, wives and children waiting in anticipation at the Spring City Armory for their loved ones to return.
Shortly after 9 a.m., more than a motorcycle corps of 80 Patriot Guard Riders led two buses carrying the troops to the Spring City Armory, where family and friends broke out in cheers and laughter, welcoming the servicemen and women home.
It was on Sunday, June 25, 2006 when these soldiers, from the Pennsylvania Army National Guard 1st Battalion, 213th Air Defense Artillery, left from the armory.
Upon their return last Friday, for some people, words were too difficult to muster, and a silent tear-filled embrace took their place.
Donna Brown, of Birdsboro, whose husband, Capt. Frank Brown was returning from his second deployment, said she was happy to have her husband, the father of their three children, home.
"I'm so happy to have my partner back," she said.
"It feels fantastic to be home," Capt. Brown said. "It was a very long time weÃve been away from home."
Capt. Brown's first thought when he arrived on American soil was that he could smell fresh grass clippings and see white clouds in they sky, he said.
"They don't have clouds in Iraq," he said, noting temperatures in Iraq are upward of 120 degrees.
Deb Keene, holding a large American flag in one hand and her 3-year-old daughter Casey's hand in the other, became emotional waiting for her husband to arrive.
Today's "a very happy day," Keene said. "It's been a long 15 months."
She said everyday life without her husband was difficult, but the quiet times at the end of the day when the reality of being without her husband sunk in were most difficult. "The nights are the hardest," she said, sweeping a tear from her cheek.
Keene said she and her husband are planning to head to Alaska to visit family, and "outside of that, it's mostly just catching up."
Erica Greaves, of Pottstown, surrounded by family and in-laws welcomed home her husband, Michael Greaves. The two were married less than two weeks when Michael was deployed.
"And now we can go on our honeymoon," Greaves said, smiling with her husband at her side.
Joseph and Shirley Barrett, of Reading, embraced their granddaughter Jessica Hnatuick when she got off the bus.
"It feels great" to be home, Hnatuick said, adding that she planned to go see her mother who lives out of state and hang out with her friends.
"It's different" having a granddaughter in the Armed Forces, Shirley Barrett said. "We worried about her the whole time."
For Michelle Smith, the anticipation of seeing her son for the first time in more than a year was too much.
"He's the reason I can stand up," Smith said emotionally, noting that her son, Sgt. Lee Smith, of Phoenixville, was positive about his work in Iraq every time she spoke with him during his deployment.
Smith and her husband Steve, of West Chester, said the past year wasn't easy. "It's just been a long year because your imagination runs wild," Steve Smith said. Now that their son is home, "we're gonna do whatever he wants to do" to celebrate, the Smiths said.
"It's been a long, tough road," Capt. Brown said to the group of troops as they stood in formation before being officially dismissed. "You did a fantastic job. We accomplished all our missions."
Capt. Brown reminded the troops to remember all they'd accomplished with this deployment with the Army National Guard, and to never forget two of their fellow servicemen, Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Bozovich, of Mercer County, and Specialist Jeremy Maresh, of Jim Thorpe, who lost their lives in Iraq.
Capt. Brown said the home-coming was amazing, thanking the entire community who came out to greet the troops, including the Spring-Ford High School band, and the people who displayed American flags.
For many of the servicemen and women, Friday marked the last time they will serve with many of their comrades as the C Battery 1/213th Air Defense Artillery unit is being disbanded. Some of the servicemen and women will retire while others will be reassigned to a new unit.