Illinois welcomes back soldiers

Online Poster

Online Poster

By Acton Gorton

Breaking the unforgiving cold February winds and temperatures in the low 30s by bundling up tight, approximately 3,000 people gathered around the square in the quiet town of Paris, Ill., Tuesday to welcome back the 1544th Transportation Company of the Illinois National Guard.

Signs reading “Welcome Home Richie” and “God Bless the USA” waved in the air while family and friends waited eagerly for the soldiers to march into Paris after being mobilized more than a year ago on Dec. 7, 2003 – the same day that Pearl Harbor was attacked 52 years earlier.

Karl Yontz, 75, has lived in Paris for his entire life. He said he has seen units return to Paris from Korea, Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm, but said there has never been a welcoming ceremony before.

“This is the biggest crowd we’ve had,” Yontz said.

As the excitement in the crowd grew, parents talked about what it was going to be like to see their children.

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Ron Thompson said Sgt. Keith Butler, his son, wants a slice of Joe’s Pizza – a local pizzeria in Paris. Thompson said he and his stepson tried to arrange for Joe’s Pizza to fly to Iraq and cook for Butler’s unit.

When the soldiers formed in front of the square, the Paris High School Band played the national anthem. After respects were paid to the flag, a moment of silence was taken followed by the playing of “Taps” for the fallen soldiers who didn’t return with the unit.

Capt. Brandon Tackett, commander for the 1544th, said the unit completed more than 1,200 missions, but 900 were done before their vehicles were armored. Tackett said the 170-soldier-strong unit endured more than 100 mortar attacks, 60 direct fire engagements and has been awarded more than 30 purple hearts.

“This will be a day we will remember for the rest of our lives,” Tackett said. “The bottom line now is America is a safer place than it was three years ago,” he said.

Tackett said because he is an active duty soldier and not in the National Guard, he will be going back to Fort Lewis, Wash., in two days – without vacation.

Although the 1544th was a transportation company, they encountered significant resistance from Iraqi insurgents during their deployment. The unit incurred the second most casualties of any National Guard unit deployed to Iraq.

Among the welcoming committee were Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, State Senator Dale Righter (R-Mattoon), State Representative Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) and Congressman Tim Johnson (R-Ill.).

“Today is a special day, Paris is the capital of Illinois,” said Quinn, referring to the jubilation of the crowd and his pride for the 1544th.

Seemingly everyone in the large crowd was directly connected to the deployment of the troops. Officer Terry Rogers of the Paris Police Department was blocking traffic to make room for the 1544th to march into town.

“It’s good to have them home,” said Rogers, referring to his friends serving in the 1544th.

Rose said he has a childhood friend who was deployed with the 1544th.

Everyone at the gathering appeared overwhelmed with emotions. Husbands and wives, girlfriends and boyfriends, parents and grandparents all hugged their loved ones.

Spc. Joey Tibbs said he feels overwhelmed by the support of the community. He plans to return to college and become either a correctional or police officer.

“I feel very good. I’m glad everyone around here is supportive of what the troops did,” said Tad Tibbs of Paris, cousin of Spc. Tibbs.

While most soldiers talked about relaxing and spending time with their families, a few are going on vacations.

Richard Artis, waiting to see his son – Staff Sgt. Terry Artis – said, “Words cannot express how happy we are.” He said his son already has reservations to go to Mexico with his wife.

Spc. Alexandra Leal said now that she is back, she is going on a cruise to Mexico and flying to Las Vegas. Leal said when she returns from her vacation, she is going to start preparing her return to college.

First Lt. John Harvey of Fairfield, Ill., said he is going on vacation to South Padre Island, Texas.

“I didn’t expect to feel this great,” Harvey said.

Maj. Tim Franklin, a spokesman with the Illinois National Guard headquarters, described how he felt from standing in the crowd.

“Every emotion you would think,” Franklin said. “Relief they are back. Somberness. Welcome. Main thing is I’m thankful they are back.”