Warm welcome for the troops
For miles before they even arrived in Detroit Lakes, the troops could see people were waiting in anticipation of their arrival home after 22 months away -- 16 of those spent in Iraq.
Yellow ribbons and groups of people waving flags lined Highway 10 on Sunday long before the bus reached Detroit Lakes, the destination for the 2-136th Combined Arms Battalion, 1-34th Brigade Combat Team.
Thousands waited along Washington Avenue in Detroit Lakes and in the Detroit Lakes High School gymnasium. Whether they knew individuals in the unit or not, all were there to show their support.
"We're here for all the troops. There are friends of the family," Cheryl Blauert, Detroit Lakes, said as she waited inside the high school lobby.
Her father has been with the National Guard since the 1950s and is a part of the American Legion.
Blauert and her mother, Carol Blauert, also of Detroit Lakes, said they have been to all the memorials and events for the Detroit Lakes-based troops.
"We're here to support them all," Carol Blauert said. "It's going to be emotional."
Fern Bruhn of Detroit Lakes said she was there to support all the troops as well.
"My husband is also part of the Color Guard," she added.
As music blasted and the crowd received updates as to where the troops were along Highway 10 -- being brought in by chartered bus -- the cheering grew as they neared Detroit Lakes and got even louder when it was announced the bus had finally arrived.
The Patriot Guard and Minnesota State Patrol escorted the bus down Washington Avenue -- where the Detroit Lakes Fire Department shot a welcoming arch of water -- and down to the doors of the high school.
As the troops entered the high school gymnasium and stood in formation facing their families, signs waved -- "Thank you troops," "Welcome home Mike. We love you," "We love you, daddy. You're a hero."
"I, like you, have been waiting 22 months," Mayor Larry Buboltz said of the troops' return. "We celebrate the safe return of these soldiers."
Thoughts and prayers continue for the families whose soldiers didn't return home, he added.
"I'd like to thank this unit for their service. I know it was long and difficult," he said. "Know this community is willing to stick with you as long as that reintegration takes.
"I couldn't be happier to say thanks for a job well done, and welcome," Buboltz said.
Capt. Adam Gilbertson, commander of the unit, praised Detroit Lakes and the surrounding communities for welcoming the troops back.
"We couldn't have done this without you," he said, thanking families for the care packages, the community for supplies, and employers for saving their jobs.
"These are the best men I've ever had the opportunity to serve with," Gilbertson said, clearly getting emotional.
He added their "professionalism and excellence" has set a high standard for the Army, not just the National Guard.
Remembering and honoring the sacrifice of Staff Sgt. Greg Riewer and Staff Sgt. Josh Hanson, both killed in action, Gilbertson asked for a moment of silence.
During the ceremony, Gilbertson presented four men with honors.
Spc. Lucas Schmitz was presented the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Staff Sgt. Andrew Riewer was presented the Bronze Star. Specialist Ryan Puttbrese was presented the Purple Heart and Army Commendation Honor, and Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Anderson was presented the Army Commendation with Valor.
"I'm about ready to release this group," Gilbertson said, which set the crowd cheering.
"Gentlemen, one last time, you are dismissed," he said as hundreds of family members poured out of the bleachers to hug their soldiers.