Emotional homecoming for Ill. National Guard soldiers

September 16, 2011 (RIVERSIDE, Ill.)

For members of the 1244th Transportation Company, Friday was the day they dreamed of as they spent the past year transporting soldiers and cargo -- 170 million pounds worth -- from southern Iraq to their base in Kuwait. They did it with no casualties.

The gratitude the soldiers displayed to be back on American soil was powerful.

Specialist Jamie Rochelle was reunited with her only son.

"I am so blessed. I want to thank everyone for being here," she said in tears.

Sgt. Rochelle was one of the 100 soldiers to whom family members and friends expressed gratitude for serving the nation so ably in a dusty war zone, helping to get American and British troops out of Iraq, as combat gave way to troop drawdown. The 1244th completed 220 convoy missions covering 3.8 million miles.

"Kind of shocked to be here," said Specialist Louis Montenegro.

"It is the best feeling in the world to breathe American air," said Sgt. Nicole Bradin, who embraced her daughter Janeylise. "I have not seen her for a year. She is stuck to me like gum."

Captain Shawn Nokes, of Springfield, like his troops, expressed a sense of wonder at the welcome home.

"The great thing about the Guard is we build a family based system. We take care of each other and they were long days but we executed really well," said Capt. Nokes.

In a few days the elation will give way to the reality that these men and women have to find their way in America again. Many will seek the programs and support of the National Guard, and nearby, the Heinz VA Hospital.

Family assistance representatives take care of the families when the soldiers are away, and Friday was their payoff day too.

"Just 'cause the soldiers are back, our work goes on and we take care of their needs," said Janice Laging, family assistance representative, Illinois National Guard.

But whatever challenges tomorrow brings, for today it is all about just being in a position to consider the possibilities.

The 1244th was one of four Illinois-based transportation companies returning Friday. Its soldiers earned 11 Bronze Stars, 12 meritorious service medals 15 combat action badges and three Purple Hearts.

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