“This is something I’ve never felt before,” he said, cradling his 3-month-old daughter Clarke. “I can’t even explain it.”
Lanier and his loved ones are one of about 100 families that were joyously and tearfully reunited during a homecoming celebration at Legion Stadium for Delta Company of the Alabama National Guard 1/167th Infantry Battalion.
The soldiers, along with approximately 500 other troops from 1/167th units across the state, returned to the United States about two weeks ago following a nearly yearlong deployment, nine months of which were spent in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
They traveled Monday from Camp Shelby, Miss., to Sylacauga, where their buses were greeted on U.S. 280 with an escort of about 30 motorcycles and police, as well as American flags and yellow ribbons lining roads to the celebration.
Inside the stadium, anticipation was palpable as roughly 800 family members and citizens listened for the roar of the approaching motorcycles.
“Please stay behind the white line until the soldiers are dismissed,” advised Company D Family Readiness Group chairwoman Rebecca Milam, whose husband was one of the returning troops. “As soon as you hear they are dismissed, you can tackle them, jump on them, run to them. Believe me, I can’t wait either.”
Minutes later, the crowd stood upon the soldiers’ arrival, cheering and clapping as troops made their way to seats on the field.
“On behalf of the city of Sylacauga, we say welcome home to the 167th,” Mayor Doug Murphree said. “A year ago, our prayers were for each and every one of you to return to Sylacauga safely. Today, our prayers were answered. We say thank you for what you have done, but a mere thank you doesn’t seem adequate. To your families, we owe a huge debt of gratitude. I know from experience without the support of loved ones, you cannot do your job. They have made many sacrifices to give you up for the last year. We salute you and your loved ones.”
Capt. William Hurd thanked the city on behalf of the company and said the city’s support over the last year, from care packages to prayers to events like Monday’s homecoming, “truly means a lot to us.” Hurd said the unit had one goal in mind when it left in June 2012, and that was to bring every soldier home safely — a goal it accomplished.
“The soldiers you see before you have conducted over 600 missions throughout this deployment, logging over 8,000 miles in unsecured enemy territory throughout southern Afghanistan in the Kandahar region,” Hurd said. “They fought through several enemy engagements, including a suicide bomber attack. Each and every one of these soldiers has a lot to be proud of, and you should be proud of them for what they did to support this operation.”
The crowd also heard from Cmdr. Fred Pearson of American Legion Post 45 and Vietnam Veterans. Pearson offered support from the Legion and said each soldier will soon receive a copy of the book, “Be a Better Dad Today.” Lt. Col. Richard Shows also offered a welcome, asking for a round of applause for the soldiers’ safe return and closing with, “Welcome home, great job and God bless America.”
After the brief speeches, Hurd instructed soldiers to rise to their feet. What followed were two words the troops and their families were longing to hear: “Dismissed. Hooah!”
Relatives quickly released red, white and blue balloons and rushed to hug their soldiers.
Lanier said he dreamed of that very moment every day during deployment, and the thought of it helped him and his wife, Diana, through the months apart.
“I told her the other night I felt like real life was in Afghanistan and all this was not real,” Lanier said. “Then I get home and see my beautiful daughter (8-year-old Madysen) that’s all grown up and this little baby, and I’m just the happiest man on Earth. I’m absolutely the happiest person.”
Diana Lanier said their home is once again complete.
“It’s been very overwhelming,” she said. “I feel like security is here and now our life can begin again.”
Contact Emily Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.