Handshakes, hugs, tears and jumping children welcomed home 44 soldiers in Jefferson City Thursday.
Hundreds packed the gym at the Missouri Army National Guard’s Ike Skelton Training Site to greet the 35th Divisional Engineers, 35th Infantry Division, who were honored after arriving from a 14-month deployment in the Middle East.
The unit was deployed to provide “full-spectrum engineering in Iraq in support of military and civil construction” in addition to assisting the Iraqi government in reconstruction, according to the Missouri National Guard Web site.
In addition to the welcome home ceremony, the soldiers and their families were honored in the freedom salute ceremony, which was created in 2003 to recognize the support given to the soldiers by their families during time spent abroad.
Included in the ceremony is the presentation of an encased American flag, a commemorative coin, a “Defender of Freedom” certificate and a lapel insignia, which each soldier presents to an individual who gave them extraordinary support during deployment.
Among the 44 returning soldiers are Columbia resident Spc. Dustin Thompson, 20, and Hallsville resident Maj. Daniel Crouch, 40. Columbia resident Maj. Michael Fayette also returned, but was not in attendance.
The relief and happiness of the homecoming was expressed in hugs and tears by the Crouch family, whose seven children and their mother had been without father and husband since March 2005.
Crouch, who worked as an operations officer in Mosul, Iraq, was brief in his response to what he planned on doing when he got back home. Placing his arms around daughters Makayla, 10, and Madison, 8, he said, “Just be with my family.”
His wife, Malinda, said, “It’s just great to see him back here alive,” before succumbing to tears.
Crouch’s son Tyler, 16, echoed this sentiment, adding that he was looking forward to spending time with his dad discussing football, one of their shared interests.
“Tomorrow morning I’m going to take him with me to pick up my football equipment for my summer camp,” he said.
The division, which is stationed in Cape Girardeau, is set to be deactivated at the end of August.