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Community gathers to celebrate troops' return home

Ten months is a long time.

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Spc. David Brigham (center) and other soldiers salute during the playing of The Star Spangled Banner during Sunday's celebration of the local National Guard Unit.Spc. David Brigham (center) and other soldiers salute during the playing of The Star Spangled Banner during Sunday's celebration of the local National Guard Unit.  Click here for more photos
Jason B. Smith
Even with a few weekend breaks.

"It's good to be home," said Spc. John Hartley, standing in the National Guard Armory in Thomson Sunday. "My to-do list is backed up to the ceiling."

More than 100 people gathered at the Armory Sunday to celebrate the homecoming of National Guard Unit Battery B, 1/214th Field Artillery -- Thomson's soldiers.

"It's better now because there was a lot of crying last time," said Spc. Kenneth Harris, comparing Sunday's celebration to last March's farewell ceremony for the same soldiers. "Now there is a lot of happiness."

McDuffie County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton -- an Air Force veteran -- said he was thankful that his military service never took him away from his family for an extended amount of time. He also praised the soldiers for their service.

"Anyone who truly puts service above self is a hero and that makes each and every one of you a hero," he said.

Sgt. 1st Class Johnny G. Hearst said he was proud of his soldiers and thankful they made it back to Thomson safely.

"Somehow God saw fit to weather the storm and bring us to this homecoming," he said.

The group of about 75 soldiers left Thomson for Ft. Campbell on March 20.

"When he left, I cried," said six-year-old Brandon Franklin of his father, Staff Sgt. William Fortson.

While at Fort Campbell, the unit received training and supported Operation Enduring Freedom until June 20. Then the group was moved to Ft. Bragg where they were assigned homeland security duty. There they were honored for their work to keep the installation safe.

"In everything you did, you stood tall and made them proud," said Thomson Mayor Bob Knox.

Capt. Shane Strickland said the soldiers also made their families and community proud.

"I am truly proud to have served with each and every one of you," he said.

For Capt. Strickland, who lives in Comer, Ga., coming home is extra special. His son, Michael Patrick, was born three months ago, and his wife, Wendy, said the couple was worried that Capt. Strickland wouldn't be there for the birth because the soldiers were possibly headed overseas. Instead, they were stationed stateside.

For Louise Neal, having her son, Spc. Rodney Neal, home was the answer to prayers.

"It was rough at home," she said. "I prayed day and night. I praised the Lord he came home safe."

Spc. Neal said coming home was a boost for both the community and the soldiers.

"Our spirits have certainly been lifted a bit more," he said.

Nearby, Sgt. Tommy Steed held the hand of his daughter, three-year-old Mya. For him, balancing family and service has been tough.

"I know they needed me at home," he said. "But I had to do my duty to my country."



Web posted on Thursday, January 15, 2004


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