The Illinois Army National Guard soldiers spent the last year in Afghanistan taking part in Operation Enduring Freedom. These soldiers left their friends, families and jobs to defend the country and Thursday were recognized as heroes.
And what a heroic welcome they received! The 38 Illinois National Guard soldiers in G Company 634th Brigade Support Battalion arrived at the Crestwood Armory in Robbins cheered on by family members who have been waiting for a year to see them.
Missing from the procession was 21-year-old Sgt. Simone Robinson, who died in January from wounds sustained in Afghanistan.
However, Robinson's father, mother and 2-year-old daughter, Nyzia Wilson, were an important part of the welcome home celebration.
"It's hard because these people came home with fellow soldiers today, but we're proud of her and glad that she served her country," said Regina Byther, Simone's mother.
"It's something that she wanted to do to make a better life for her and her daughter. I'm proud of her. She's not here but she's with me every day," said Charles Robinson, Simone's father.
The room was filled with other family members from the Robinson family and pictures of the single mother decorated the stage area.
Sgt. Raul Hernandez says the welcome home is great, and he is overwhelmed by the reception but sad that Simone did not return with them.
"She was a good friend of mine and when we lost her it was very painful for all of us. We learned to deal with it and move on. She'll always be in our hearts," said Hernandez.
Sgt. First Class Christine "Mama" Kelly, Simone's superior, says although she is glad to be home she is also sad.
"It's very hard on us coming through here. It's just not the same without Simone," said Kelly.
"I just thank God that he brought [Christine] back...I asked him to bring her back and that's what he did," said Leloise Kelly, Christine Kelly's sister.
There were tears of joy when family members and friends got to greet and hug their loved ones and welcome them back home.
"It feels great. I mean, I miss my family, it's hard being gone for 12 months. I love them very much," said Special Sgt. Javier Perez, Illinois National Guard.
"Glad to see them back. It's been a long journey. They're all-Americans," said Rommeal Lear, Christine Kelly's husband.
Simone's mother says she will put together a scrapbook of what her daughter accomplished and present it to her granddaughter someday. The scrapbook will include pictures of Thursday's celebration, her awards and recognition and tributes from Robinson's comrades.
On Saturday the Robinson family will have a welcome home party for the soldiers and another party on Tuesday which would have been Simone's 22nd birthday.