LARGO —The place U.S. Army Cpl. and St. Petersburg native Stevan Hollahan found himself Sunday afternoon was a world away from where he'd been only days before.
The kisses here from relatives, the ceaseless, warm hugs from his mother, the handshakes from hundreds of well-wishers were what he had to smile about, to bashfully accept.
The only real danger was to avoid a pinprick from the shaky hand of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young , R-Indian Shores, as the statesman pinned an Army Achievement Medal to his chest at a party in his honor at the Armed Forces Military Museum in Largo.
But like the streak of sunburn on the 22-year-old's cheeks from fighting on the chilly peaks of Kunar Province, Afghanistan, the memories from where he'd just come from were fresh.
Hollahan's mother, Paula Blanda, put great effort into making her son's two-week leave more memorable than most.
"He's my one and only," she said. "When your child is in combat and fighting, it's the most stress you can have as a parent."
So throwing that son a champagne banquet in the halls of the area's most comprehensive military museum, arranging for a congressman to award him a medal earned in the line of duty, is a small consolation.
"It's been 10 months since I've seen my mom, anyone," Hollahan said. "This is really nice."
When leave is over, he will return to the place he earned his medal — one moment in support of the operation to free captured Scottish aid worker Linda Norgrove in Afghanistan last fall.
Hollahan recalls the details without hesitation. He found himself with his unit more than a mile across a valley from the enemy combatants.
"We saw the guys watching us from a mountaintop," he said.
They weren't weekend-warrior insurgents who may take a potshot, Hollahan said, like the kind he engaged on his first combat tour in Iraq.
They were hardened fighters, coming from places like rural Pakistan, the kind that troops engage in hourslong firefights and who've exacted a heavy toll on coalition forces in places like Korengal Valley, where Hollahan was operating with the 101st Airborne Division.
"They'll move on you," he said. "They'll set up ambushes. Something we do."
Hollahan, a squad leader and marksman, was working with other units to surround the enemy so the 36-year-old captive known to be in the area couldn't be smuggled away.
With the combatants outside an assault rifle's range, Hollahan was asked to hit them with a Javelin missile — though they were at the edge of that weapon's range.
His training came back to him. He locked on and fired. He hit the target, but Norgrove was later killed during a rescue attempt.
Young's words summed up the feeling and long rounds of applause for Hollahan's efforts — verbal energy to keep him going until the next time he returns.
"Thank you for the things you do for us," Young said.