FORT RILEY — The energy inside Fort Riley’s deployments center bristled with anticipation Wednesday evening as friends and family waited to reunite with their loved ones who had been deployed across the world for nine months.
The crowd cheered as the lights dimmed, artificial smoke filled the room and 469 soldiers from the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team’s Main Body 8 and 9A streamed into the room, lining up on the floor.
Maj. Gen. John Kolasheski, commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley, thanked the families for their support and commended the soldiers on their duty overseas.
“Through multiple exercises and live fire events, you assured our allies around the world, and you deterred our adversaries,” Kolasheski said. “You did it with a sense of discipline and pride that this organization is known for, so you should walk with your head held high and your shoulders back. Job well done. Welcome home.”
Earlier this year, almost 4,000 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team soldiers and approximately 2,700 1st Combat Aviation Brigade soldiers deployed to Europe as part of a regular rotation in support of the Atlantic Resolve mission.
Atlantic Resolve’s purpose is to build readiness, increase interoperability and enhance the bonds with partner militaries using multinational training events in Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania.
More than 150 1st Sustainment Brigade headquarters soldiers also have been deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, continuing counterterrorism efforts.
Over the past month, those soldiers have steadily returned from their deployments, and officials said they expect about 6,000 troops to be back before the Thanksgiving holiday.
With the crowd Wednesday, Kolasheski counted down from three and dismissed the soldiers on the floor, inciting a wave of movement from the floor and stands as families found and embraced one another.
Kimberly Maclin’s children, 9-year-old Cassidy and 5-year-old Lee, found their father, Johnathan Maclin, in no time and he crouched over to give them a long hug.
Johnathan had spent his first deployment in Germany as an artillery mechanic.
Kimberly, of Fort Riley, grinned as she held up the sign the family made for Johnathan to see, a to-do list now that he was home, which included hugs, kisses, wrestling and playing on his new Xbox that was waiting at home.
“It’s great, it’s good to be back,” Johnathan said. “(The first thing I’m going to do is) go home, get a shower, play with my kids and visit with my wife and everybody.”
Kimberly said though they were able to communicate through messaging and occasional calls, it had been difficult being apart. Even in the months leading up to his deployment, Johnathan had been busy with basic and advanced individual training, but Kimberly said knowing the two of them would be able to see each other again got her through the experience.
“Some days I’m like, ‘Why did you do this?’” she said. “But this is the one thing he’s wanted to do his whole life, being in the Army. As long as it makes him happy, I’m happy. It’s hard to be separated, but in the end, he’s doing the one thing he’s wanted to do when he was growing up.”
Before the troops came out, Kimberly said she would be able to get one of her wedding ring bands back because she gave one to Johnathan before he left, and he carried it with him on his dog tags. Cassidy and Lee, she said, gave their father a teddy bear and bandana to remember them by.
Behind the scenes, Dianne Hepler and Patt Brazina of the Lady Troopers cleared up a snack and refreshment area set up for the troops. For nearly 30 years, these women and several other volunteers see off and welcome families and soldiers when they deploy and return, no matter the weather or time of day.
Both women had husbands who had served in the Army.
“My husband was a several-time Vietnam vet and his last time (he deployed), I was mad,” Brazina said. “I was mad at the Army, I was mad at the world, and I vowed never again would a soldier come home and not be welcomed.”
Hepler said volunteers provide items like cookies (which are homemade during deployments) and coffee to help ease the anxiety of leaving home and welcome troops when they return. The Lady Troopers also help keep in touch with command teams to help them adjust to the area.
Hepler said she’s been involved with the organization for as long as she has after seeing soldiers’ react to the gestures.
“You have to be here and see when the troops come through, they’re so appreciative,” she said.
Lt. Col. Corey Gamble, the brigade’s rear detachment commander, said it was great to see all the families reunited. In the coming weeks, the troops will undergo a reintegration process that includes medical check ups and briefs to get them settled. Gamble said they will then resume normal everyday operations and the holiday season will give some an opportunity to take a break.
“(The welcome home ceremony is) a great experience,” Gamble said. “They spent nine months in Europe with training exercises and working with partner nations. Even though communication is good between families, it’s always that person-to-person communication that’s the best.”