ALBANY - The Linn County Expo Center's Willamette Exhibit Hall started out empty enough, some two hours prior to the arrival of the 117 soldiers from Bravo Company, 52nd Engineers Battalion, with scattered few families strung around the giant room. Some continued to make preparations outside, putting up banners and balloons while others waited patiently - still apprehensive of what they were waiting for.
The families and friends had been told they would have to wait inside the building as their loved ones arrived, that only after a short ceremony were they to be able to reach out to them and welcome them back with truly open arms.
Word came about an hour prior to arrival that the soldiers had landed at the Eugene airport and would be traveling north on Highway 99E, east on Highway 34 and then north on I-5 to Albany. Many of the hundred or so on hand decided they would drive out to the overpass and other streets the troops would enter Albany on to give them a hero's welcome. Well over 100 people lined the street and watched as finally the escort of Linn County Sheriff's vehicles and a contingent of U.S war veterans on motorcycles led the way. The soldiers were officially home.
Upon arriving back at the Expo Center, the number on hand had grown exponentially to hundreds, if not close to 1,000. Those who were originally told to wait, disregarded this edict and ran to the road to greet their soldiers as they disembarked from the buses. A tsunami of emotion flooded the sidewalk as months of hopes were realized.
But there were two local families that did wait - Debbie and Sonny Gore and Rhonda Lopez, both of the Peninsula. The Gores were on hand to see the return of their son, Pfc. Jerry Graham; Rhonda was to wait until that evening to be reunited with her husband, Spc. E4 Tony Lopez, as she had to work that day.
Debbie said she was sitting inside the exhibit hall, hearing the happy sounds from outside when she saw her son walk through the door.
"It's hard to describe; it was just so amazing to see him. I didn't have any thoughts except that he was finally home," Debbie said. She and her son ran to each other, meeting in the middle for a long embrace of relief.
Perhaps the Linn County sheriff summed up the day best in his speech to the troops when he said, "Last February, there was a going-away ceremony held here at the fairgrounds. That day this building was just full of hugs and kisses and tears and also sorrow, anticipation, concerns, hopes and fears. Three-hundred-and-eighty-four days later this building is again full of hugs kisses and tears, but today I also see smiles, relief, laughter and joy."
Waiting a yearThe Gores have been waiting to see their son for almost a year: Jerry celebrated his 21st birthday while in the Middle East. The day prior to his return, Debbie reminisced about the last time she saw her son.
"Feb. 13, 2003," she said. "He came home to tell us that he had been activated and to get his birth certificate and other paperwork that he needed. I was very proud of him. It was something that he really wanted to do.
"I was apprehensive, because I knew I wouldn't see him for a long time. I was scared because it's a war zone and you never know what's going to happen."
These are some of the feelings she held onto, even after she heard of his return. Debbie said she kept things in check after hearing from her son he would be home in two weeks - that is until they got back stateside - then excitement set in.
"I was excited, and this whole week I've been excited but still kind of reserving in case something came up to where they didn't fly out on time," she said. "Today I'm on pins and needles, I can't wait to see him."
After being called into active duty, the battalion, home-based in Albany, was sent to Fort Carson, Colo., for training. They were deployed to the Middle East in April last year, starting in Kuwait and ending up in Mosul, Iraq - where they were stationed for the duration of the tour.
While they were in Iraq, the B-52s were tasked with many rebuilding projects, including the construction of an orphanage, two new housing units and helped reconstruct the airport. They received help from locals, who learned new skills they could then put into use once the soldiers had gone.
At this point in the war effort, soldiers are released from duty after a year of activation.
This time for goodRhonda Lopez had to wait a little longer than the Gores to be reunited with her husband - but overall, she had a much shorter wait. Tony was home in December on a two-week R&R stint.
"It makes big difference," he said of being home on a more permanent basis this time. "The last time, just when it was time to go back, everybody was feeling bad. It's not a good feeling."
Rhonda said she jokingly refers to her husband's entry into the National Guard as his "mid-life crisis."
"Although I don't know if he would call it that," she said.
Tony, a naturalized citizen originally from Mexico, where his family still resides, joined three years ago after turning 36. Having worked as a foreman for Mike LaLone Reforestation of Astoria, the engineer battalion was a logical choice. But war?
"We didn't expect it but knew it was possible," said Rhonda of his being sent overseas. "I think it's easier because we're done having our children."
Tony and Rhonda have three children: 10-year-old Nichole, 8-year-old Ben and 5-year-old Joe.
"I think Nichole took it the hardest," Rhonda said. "The boys have been really good and helpful, but she would say, 'I wish my daddy was here.'"
After a deactivation ceremony this Thursday, also in Albany, the battalion will be officially put on in-active reserve and will go back to "normal" life again, serving only "one weekend a month and two weeks a year." But what that normal life is for each soldier is different.
For Tony, it is a return to the family life that he has missed for a year.
"It feels good," Tony said in an accent-tinged voice.
He said right now he is unsure what he going to do, whether or not he will return to his job. He said there is still a chance he may be deployed again in the three years he has left with the Guard.
"There is a chance that we're going back again in maybe one, two years," he said. "It is something that I have to do. I'm OK with it. I wish that they wouldn't, but that's my job."
For Jerry, it is still up in the air as well, although he is considering the Army as a career.
"He's kicking around several ideas, he'd like to find a job - something in the field he's been working in all along," said his mother. "He's also considering going full-time active Army."
Even his living plans are undecided, as his mother said she was unsure if he would return to the Peninsula to live.
We're not sure yet," she said. "He's got family in the Salem, but I don't think he's thought that far ahead."