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COL Caught up in the wave of 'welcome home'

The signs were printed up and ready to display. The little flags on sticks were ready to wave. The wind was blowing, but the luminaries kept burning. Nobody cared that it was cool out. Opportunities like this don't come along very often.

The stage was set. Families, friends and an impressive number of people like me -- those who just wanted to say thanks -- stood, waiting. I could feel a definite swelling of nationalistic pride, not only within myself, but also as a member of this group.

The only ones not yet in attendance were the guests of honor, but their arrival was imminent. We knew it was, because of the continuous cell phone updates of their position in the city as they paraded their way through Austin in a motorcade that would have made Prince Charles jealous.

Someone shouted, "They're by the high school! They'll be here in five minutes!" We could hear the sirens of the police escort somewhere in the distance. The anticipation in that cool evening air would have ensnared even the worst of cynics.

Then, two police cars that had been waiting nearby moved into position to block traffic in both directions on U.S. 218. I felt my heart rate increase. I was entirely caught up in the moment, and, though he didn't really understand why, my 8-year-old son was, too. "Dad, how much longer? How much longer?"

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I can't imagine what it must have been like for family members and friends.

The sirens grew louder now, and soon, arriving at the top of the Interstate 90 off-ramp was a police car, lights flashing, followed by another police car, and another. They moved into positions intended to permit safe passage and to direct the attention of passersby where it belonged.

Then, the small bus appeared on top of the ramp. "There they are!" someone cried. The crowd erupted into a chorus of cheers, and the hair on the back of my neck rose as if standing at attention.

It was a true hero's reception. The welcome signs went up; the flags waved. The well-lit bus, followed by a fire engine and another police car, slowed to allow its passengers to soak up the adulation we were heaping upon them.

Our heroes, dressed in desert fatigues and waving to the crowd, appeared almost taken aback by the attention they were receiving.

As the bus drove around to the rear of the Armory, the throng flocked to the gym inside the building and formed a semi-circle that faced the door through which the soldiers would soon emerge.

Before long that door opened, and after a moment or two of anticipatory silence, in walked the 10 returning members of the 434th Main Support Battalion to another thunderous ovation. The applause was loud, and the smiles on the soldiers' faces wide.

They quickly formed two uniform lines of five, and after a salute to and from what I decided was a commanding officer, they were officially relieved of their duties.

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At that moment, as if on cue, those who could wait no more ran to their loved ones as red, white and blue balloons fell from the ceiling. I felt the proverbial lump form in the back of my throat as I watched them embrace one another and the moment for which they had all waited so long.

I wanted to interview one or two of the soldiers, but I couldn't get myself to approach them. I mean, what was I going to say, "How does it feel to be home?" This was their time, not mine, and the joy on their faces was the exact answer to any question I could have asked anyway.

Having decided that, I told my son it was time to go home.

That night there were no politics. There were no protests. There was no hatred. There were only proud Americans showing their support for 10 returning heroes who would probably tell you modestly that they are not heroes at all, that they were only doing the job they had signed up to do.

Whatever the case, I'm glad I was able to be there to show my appreciation to them for doing a job nobody really wants to do, and if I can, I'm going to be there when the rest of the 434th comes home later this month.

I want to thank them, too.

Jeff Reinartz is a freelance writer and lifelong Austin resident.

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