For some Guard members, a long wait endsby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
It was hugs and cheers for 73 members of the Minnesota Army National Guard, their families and supporters in Grand Rapids on Saturday. Grand Rapids-based Charlie Company, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry returned to Minnesota; the first of about 2,600 Minnesota-based Guard members to return from deployment to Iraq.
Grand Rapids, Minn. — The crowd began gathering more than an hour before the soldiers arrived. Families came from across northern Minnesota -- Brainerd, Duluth, Hibbing, and all the smaller towns in between.
Annabelle Genereaux, from Barnum said she was "just pins and needles," waiting for her son Patrick, the second-youngest of nine kids.
"I should have been cleaning my house, and I had to get in that car and, you know, go here and there, and I couldn't sit still," she said.
It's been a hard wait for the families and the soldiers. Deployed for a one-year tour in October 2005, the Guard soldiers learned in Iraq that they would not be going home soon. Their tour was extended an additional 125 days under President Bush's troop surge. The unit became one of the longest serving in the war. It was deployed for a total of 22 months, with nearly 16 months in a war zone.
"I did listen to the news every day," Genereaux said. "And, hearing about the casualties, and, you know, wondering if maybe he was one of them. But I knew angels were around him. I just knew he was OK, but still..."
Soon, buses arrived behind Grand Rapids' IRA Civic Center. A garage door went up, and so did the cheers, as 73 soldiers, marched in, barely holding back huge smiles.
Company Commander Capt. Eduardo Suarez told the soldiers it had been an honor and a privilege to serve with Charlie Company.
"It's been an incredible journey, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have been your commander," he said. "Soon you'll be released to your families, and the next phase of your journey will begin. I'm going to miss you, each and every one of you. You've been my family for the last two years, basically."
With a "company dismissed," the surge began, as families raced from their chairs into the quickly disintegrating crowd of green and brown camouflage.
Sgt. Bert Bluntach, from Marble, fell into the arms of half a dozen people, including his fiancee, Patty O'Donnell.
"This beautiful women right here. That's the best thing in my life," he said. "Without her I wouldn't have made it. I wouldn't have made it without her. There's no doubt in my mind about that."
He spoke of his pride with the mission in Iraq, and his more immediate ambitions.
"I can't even explain it. I just want to go fishing right now," he said.
Charlie Company will have a month home before they're called back for the first of several reintegration seminars.
"This, in fact, for the soldiers and their families, begins a period of reintegration, where they have to adjust from being on guard all the time; totally focused in a combat zone mentality, where they need to readjust from being soldiers, back to being citizen-soldiers, and being citizens again," said Minnesota Army Guard spokesman Kevin Olson.
Saturday's ceremony is just the first of many in Minnesota. The Grand Rapids unit is the leading edge of 2,600 Minnesota Guard returning from duty in the Mideast.