The Welcome Home Tour of the 690th Military Police Company reached its final destination Sunday, arriving at the same armory where, in December 2004, the unit's combat mission to Afghanistan began.
On the approach to town, the white buses carrying the soldiers passed yellow ribbons tied on nearly every utility pole and signs in front of businesses welcoming them. As the caravan approached the Crystal River Armory, the greetings became more frequent.
When the caravan turned off U.S. 19 to enter the armory, it passed beneath an archway formed by two fire engine ladder trucks. Welcome signs made of white linens and attached to the armory fence, billowed in the strong wind.
After 14 months and many missed birthdays and anniversaries, the 690th ended its tour of duty. It did not suffer any combat fatalities.
The soldiers got off the buses, were greeted by joyful and tearful relatives and then marched single file through a small canyon of applause. They formed up inside the armory along a wall with relatives and friends seated alongside.
This was the second welcome home for the 690th in a week. They were welcomed home Wednesday at a ceremony held at Fort Stewart Army Base in Georgia. Although many people attended both events, the crowd at the armory was larger, perhaps as many as 700.
They were addressed by their senior Florida National Guard leadership, including Col. Joseph M. Duren commander of the 50th Area Support Group, other officers and U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite.
"If you're here today, you're here because you have a hero in this room," Duren said.
He praised the unit's performance in Afghanistan, which was to provide security at an air base for senior military leadership and secure detainees captured by other troops.
He also recognized that while the soldiers "put their lives on hold" for a year, the families who stayed behind had to continue and cope the best they could.
"Their world stopped, but yours kept going," he said, addressing the families. "This could not have been possible without your support and sacrifice."
The families lined the parking lot of the armory, where the buses carrying the soldiers stopped. As the vehicles slowed, the flag bearer of the 690th in the rear bus somehow managed to hoist the colors through a vent opening in the roof of the bus.
As the soldiers left the buses, the people in the crowd began to search for familiar faces, and soon, it was a repeat of the scene at Fort Stewart on Wednesday: tears and hugs. Real tight hugs.
The soldiers, glad to be home, said they were looking forward to getting some rest.
"Man, from all the flights and bus rides over the past week, we're all pretty well-spent and numb from all the emotions," said Spc. Michael Cancel, 45, of Inverness.
Cancel served alongside his son, Spc. Michael J. Cancel, 23, also of Inverness. The father said that having a son in the same company helped "make things a little easier over there."
"We're both the same rank, but I have a little more time in than him," the elder Cancel said. "I could make him drop and start doing push-ups now if I wanted to.
"But it's just great to be home," he said.
Crystal River resident Yulee Commander was there to help welcome her nephew Spc. Brian Lewis.
"The last time I saw him was at his brother's funeral on July 4," she said. "So this, while bittersweet, is still a good thing for us."
Commander said she was having an open house cookout for a group of soldiers Sunday night.
"It's for all of those who may not have a place to go tonight," she said.
Waving American flags at the welcome home event were Jack Moncrieff, 75, his wife, Loretta Moncrieff, 66, and their 15-year-old grandson, Tanner Moncrieff. They drove from Brooksville out of what they said was their sense of patriotism. They didn't personally know any of the returning soldiers.
"We're here to welcome everybody back," Loretta Moncrieff said.
Jack Moncrieff said he remembered welcome home events from World War II and felt that as a citizen he should be here to welcome back the 690th. The Moncrieffs are naturalized U.S. citizens from Canada.
With their tour of duty over, the members of the 690th return to civilian life. The unit's field commander, Capt. Felix Rodriquez turned down a job offer at the University of South Florida before deployment, said his commander, Duren.
"He turned that job offer down to be with his troops," he said, addressing the audience with Rodriquez at his side.
Then Duren announced that Rodriquez had a new job offer if he wanted it, teaching military history at Florida State University.
In bidding his unit farewell, Rodriguez said: "We've been gone quite a long time. I want each and every one of you to know that I am very proud of you," he said. "This ceremony marks the completion of our mission. We made our mark in history."
Jorge Sanchez can be reached at 860-7313 or e-mail at email@example.com.