The unit helped fuel military operations in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq.
By NANCY TULLIS
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
HERMITAGE, Pa. -- Friends, family and the Hermitage and Farrell communities were not about to let the eight members of the 475th Quartermaster Group slip back into town quietly after their duty in Iraq.
The end of the journey for the Farrell-based Army Reserve unit was Artman Elementary School here, where a large crowd greeted the charter bus, noisily escorted by police, fire and emergency services units and military veterans on motorcycles.
Along the anticipated route of the bus, signs at local restaurants proclaimed "Welcome Home 475th," or "Welcome Home Troops."
Those were two words the 475th members most wanted to hear since getting the for-sure word of their return home last month.
Two words friends, family and a grateful community waited 14 months to say -- and more important -- with all of them safe and sound.
"I'm getting chills," said Sandy Kubicina of Warren as family members on cell phones were told the bus was about four minutes away. Kubicina was waiting on her son, Sgt. Jesse McKowan.
Kubicina said Jesse, 25, joined the Army to pay for college. His goal is to earn a teaching degree at Kent State University and teach at Howland High School, his alma mater.
Finally, family and friends heard the wail of sirens and blasts from air horns from the escort vehicles, but they could not see the bus.
Mayda Leon and son David, 16, of Hermitage, were waiting for husband and father Sgt. 1st Class Richard Leon.
"We were able to e-mail every day, and we've been talking every day on the phone since last Sunday," Mayda said. "I'm very excited."
She said she and David passed the time by keeping busy with David's baseball games. David plays shortstop for the Hickory High School team.
"He's been the man of the house, and did a good job," she said.
"It wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be," David added.
Mayda said her husband is a career Army man with 20 years of service.
"He's looking for 10 more years," she said. "He loves his job and loves serving his country."
Soon after her husband stepped off the bus, the family left to go to David's baseball game.
Waiting on her husband, Master Sgt. David Freeman, Eva Freeman of Sharpsville said when the 475th left just before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, she was afraid her husband and other soldiers in Operation Iraqi Freedom would be forgotten in the wake of the powerful storm.
"I wish they would get it all straightened out [in Iraq] and they could all just all come home," she said. "They all need to come home."
Commanders said the unit's mission was to supply fuel to troops in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq.
"It's great to be home!" Master Sgt. David Freeman said when he stepped off the bus. After a flurry of hugs, handshakes and how-are-yous, Freeman grinned broadly. "I'm doing good -- now that I'm home."
Soldiers carried flowers, and family members took photographs and waved flags and signs.
Kubicina stood by while son Jesse and his wife, Jennarae, embraced near the bus.
Randi Grenier, 9, of Hermitage waited with her mom, Elaine, and brother, Tyler Harvey, 15, for the arrival of her dad, Maj. Randy Grenier.
Elaine said she worked at Nadine's Trading Post, a sports store in the mall, to help her keep busy in her husband's absence, and said, "I've got kids to raise."
Elaine's boss, Nicole Guerino, was also there to show support.
"She's my boss and my friend," Elaine said. "She's helped me through this."
Randi and other members of her fourth grade class at Hermitage Elementary later sang patriotic songs for the returning soldiers and she and best friend Paige Weber read poems.
Randi said she couldn't wait to go camping Saturday because her dad "loves to go camping." She said the family would fish and float on inner tubes.
While Randi was anticipating the camping weekend, Elaine worried about the emotional reunion in a public place.
"[Do] we have to do this in front of everybody?" she asked. "I am a strong person. I can do this. I am not going to cry. I cried already today. I am not going to cry -- but I did wear my sunglasses so nobody will see me."