It had been almost a year since Sgt. John Kloeckner, 1st Sgt. Kevin Findley and Staff Sgt. Chuck Call last set foot on Missouri soil.
When they arrived at the Columbia Regional Airport on Friday, more than 100 friends and family members packed the baggage claim room to greet them. The three men, all wearing civilian clothes, were returning from Iraq.
“Even though they were the last ones home they were still well received,” Kloeckner’s wife Laura said.
The three soldiers — all members of the Missouri Army National Guard’s Company C, 1/106th Aviation Battalion — had been stationed in Balad, Iraq since December 2003 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Other members of their 50-person unit had arrived in Jefferson City on Tuesday.
Diana Findley’s eyes brimmed with tears among the waving American flags as her husband embraced her and one of their three children. It was not difficult to spot her husband in the crowd as the button she wore on her sweater had his picture on it. She also wore a yellow ribbon.
Moments later her tears turned into a proud smile as her husband made his way across the room stopping every few feet to hug or shake hands with people in the welcome party.
Robert Findley, his father, brimmed with pride as his son mingled with well-wishers. He said his son serves full time with the Missouri Army National Guard and was deployed in the Middle East in 1991.
“He was there when they ran Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991 and he went back to do it again,” Robert Findley said.
Kloeckner was similarly proud of the members of his battalion and praised their dedication to the United States’ mission considering they had been away their homes and families for long periods of time.
“In today’s army keeping in touch is really easy,” Kloeckner said when asked how often soldiers had been able to contact their family.
Moments earlier his wife, Laura, had stood anxiously by a window, waiting to catch a glimpse of the three soldiers as they exited a small civilian plane. She had pinned a glittery red, white and blue U.S.A. pin to her blouse. Despite frequent letters and phone calls, she said her husband missed spending time with their grandchildren.
“He’s just happy to be home,” she said.
Kloeckner, who served as a Crew Chief on Blackhawk helicopters, said he’s been looking forward to resuming his involvement as president of the soccer league in Versailles, where he and his wife live.
“There’s no place like home, but we all understand, home is where your heart is,” Kloeckner said.