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Southeast Ohio welcomes guard unit home from Iraq

A half-dozen ecstatic friends and family members line a bench in the lobby of the Vern Riffe Center in Portsmouth.

They are all beaming as they clutch red, white and blue fliers that read "Welcome Home Adam!"

The biggest smile on the bench belongs to Jennifer Risner, eagerly awaiting the return of her husband, Specialist Adam Risner, who, along with the rest of the B Company of the National Guard's 216th Engineer Battalion would be returning home any minute on that Friday afternoon.

"We can't sit still, first I was standing and bouncing, now I'm sitting and bouncing," Risner said, her smile stretching across her face.

"They really can't get here soon enough."

A long wait

When she's asked how she has held up during the year without him, Risner is quick to correct the figure.

"He's been gone thirteen months.

He's missed two birthdays since he's been gone."

She puts her hand on the lap of Risner's grandmother Helen Williams "They've had to handle me the whole time, so I'm finally getting passed off."

"Into good hands I might add," Williams cheerfully chimes in.

For the Risner family and hundreds of others, the long wait was almost over.

Proctorville resident Brianne Crager, unable to stand the wait, made the journey to Indiana to visit her hubby, Specialist T.J. Crager, when he landed in the States. That didn't seem to dull her anticipation of his return.

"I'm so excited," Crager said. "I got to see him on Thursday night, and that was great, and made the anticipation go down just a little bit."

Crager positively glowed as she described the forthcoming trip to T.J.'s grandparents, where she would unveil a gift to him: His old truck given a completely new paintjob.

It was tough for T.J.'s parents, standing at Brianne's side, to reach a consensus on how the year had been without their son. While his father insisted that it had been "terrible," his mother called it "awful."

They could, however, agree on the word that described their feelings at that moment: Proud.

Joann Wellington stood on a staircase landing a story above the crowd, fidgeting with her "Welcome Home Tim Wellington" banner, trying to find the perfect spot to assure that it was the first thing her son would see when he returned.

"I don't think I've been this happy since I had him the first time," Joann Wellington said. "I feel like I'm having a baby!"

Just a few feet from Wellington, Bre Gilmore peers towards the entrance to the bus loop where the soldiers will arrive from the balcony of the Vern Riffe Center lobby.

She clutches a bouquet of yellow roses and a Mylar balloon for her best friend, Staff Sgt. Deborah Charles.

She said the two were inseparable at Northwest High School, the duo even answered to the name "Debre."

"It's just, I'm Š numb.

I just can not believe that she's here," Gilmore said.

"Proud's not even the word, she's just-she's wonderful."

A surprise party was in the works to honor Charles on Saturday, but Gilmore had her own plans for when "Debre" was reunited.

"We're going thrifting," Gilmore said happily.

"We're going to all our thrift stores.

It's what we do; we're always carousing, always getting into trouble.

We'll probably have a couple of beverages too, but that's another story."

A mischievous grin eases across Gilmore's face, and it's instantly clear that she has plenty of carousing planned.

Periodically, the band in the auditorium of the VRC is struck up and eyes dart around the complex trying to catch a glimpse of the soldiers, panicked that they might have missed their return.

Gradually, the lobby empties, families gathering around the bus loop and the small island it surrounds.

It's cold, very cold, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a single complaint about it.

Though many of the families awaiting the soldiers outside the Vern Riffe Center may have been just as enthused, the Noel family may have been the largest.

Sergeant Larry Noel's return was eagerly awaited by his daughters, grandchildren, wife, two brothers and his mother, Jessie May.

"This year has been really long," daughter Tanya said, "Really hard. This Christmas was very hard, he's usually Santa Claus, he usually passes out the gifts."

The Soldiers Arrive

Finally, after what must seem like hours for the waiting families, a police car, sirens blaring, comes into view.

The moment this spearhead of the soldiers' escort crosses the threshold of the giant flag suspended above the street, the crowd erupts into a cacophony of clapping and shouting, uncaring that the soldiers can not hear their cheers.

In a way they are cheering for their own success. They've made it a year without their loved ones, and it's finally about to be over.

Then, the last fire engine of the escort appears and leans on its horn. As the coach buses come in to view, the impossible happens Š the crowd gets even louder.

As the returning soldiers pull into the loop, children (and some of the more spry wives and husbands) run from window to window trying to find their loved ones. The bus doors open, and it begins.

Families cascade into soldiers, running, pushing through crowds to get to their son, their daughter, their husband. Soldiers, tears falling off their cheeks, look as if they wish their arms could stretch even wider, hold them all, let them all know everything is going to be OK.

Surrounded once more by his friends and family, Specialist Justin Camp seems too happy to decide on the first thing he'll do now that he's home. He is clear, however, on what he doesn't want to do.

"I just want to stay away from beaches," Camp said.

The Final Ceremony

After 15 minutes with their families the soldiers are herded into the auditorium for final ceremonies. In attendance are political luminaries like U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland and State Sen. John Carey.

It's clear that the 216th appreciates the adulation, like they're children on Christmas Eve. They joke, they fidget, and after the brief taste, they can't wait to get back to their families.

After the ceremony, Strickland had some thoughts to pass along to the returning soldiers. After expressing his respect for the soldiers, he requests that they treat themselves with care.

"These people have been in very stressful circumstances, and they find themselves in very different environments now, and that kind of transition is difficult." Strickland said. "You can't go from constant alert and wondering if your life's going to be taken to an environment that is more normal. Soldiers need to understand that having difficulty making that transition is a normal thing."

"What I would like to say to every one of them is: be good to yourselves, take care of yourselves, and if you feel you need help, reach out there and get help."

Finally the ceremonies had come to a close, and reunited families prepared to return to that all-important business of living. As the throng of people formed a bottle neck at the entrance door, a burly soldier took his young daughters hand, pulled her close, and uttered the words that seemed to be the prayer of all the families that day.

"Stay close to me."

Justin McElroy is a Tribune staff writer. He can be reached at (740) 532-1441 or by e-mail to justin.mcelroy@irontontribune.com.