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Laying out a hero#039;s welcome

Harold Spriggs didn't have anyone special returning in Detachment 1, Company B of the 216th Engineer Battalion of the Ohio Army National Guard. They were celebrated yesterday in an afternoon ceremony at Ohio University Southern, and Spriggs and friend Barbara Dilley just wanted to show their respect and, more importantly, to say, "Thank you."

Spriggs had been an Army man for 30 years, and had served as part of the 101st Airborne in Vietnam. He also gave his son Rusty to the defense of our nation when he died during service in 1982.

Though Spriggs thought the day's events would call up plenty of emotion, Dilley expected to be just as moved.

"By the time they play 'Taps', I'll have tears rolling (from) my eyes," Dilley said before it started.

The ceremony began with Boy Scout Troop 106 presenting the flags of the troop, county, state and nation. It was an especially poignant moment for young Scout Zach Boggs, whose dad Mike had returned home with the 216th.

Zach's small frame struggled under the weight of the Ohio state flag but did not falter, perhaps strengthened by a year of having to live as the man of the house.

The bugler of the Scouts officially began the ceremony with the National Anthem followed by Taps. True to her word, Barbara Dilley held her hand to her lip and made no effort to hide the tears which eased down her cheeks.

A show of thanks

With the colors presented, Dr. Dan Evans, Dean of OUS, presented a video that recalled December 30, 2003, when in that same room the troops had been sent off to Iraq and honored by a community wishing them well, and more importantly, safe passage home.

Evans made mention of a lunch conversation he had with Sgt. 1st Class Tim Nicely during which Nicely had made it clear how much he appreciated the community's fond reception of the troops. Evans made it quite clear to Nicely and the audience where he thought the gratitude should be placed.

"These soldiers have risked their lives to protect us, and it's we who should be thanking them," Evans said.

The ceremony saw no shortage of thanks from the gathered crowd, who gave the soldiers no fewer than seven standing ovations. Some were requested by speakers, but most were unsolicitedexplosions of gratitude, love and pride.

"Thank you, heroes."

Evans was followed by a parade of politicians wishing to thank the troops for a job well done. Their demeanors were unfamiliar to a group who had seen most of them jockeying in political races just a few months prior. They were humble, most forgoing the verbosity related with politicians for a simple, heartfelt message of thanks.

Mayor John Elam was moved to tears during 2003's farewell ceremony, and began by saying, "I'll try to do better this time, but I'm not making any promises."

Despite his best efforts, as Elam proclaimed March 6, 2005 to be "216th Engineer Battalion Detachment 1, Company B Day" in Ironton he was once again choked up. However, one would imagine these were not tears of sorrow, but joy, and gratitude for the safe return of the sons of his city. Composing himself, he closed with a simple "Thank you, heroes."

Elam was followed by George Patterson, President of the Lawrence County Commission and State Representatives Tom Niehaus and Clyde Evans who said he shared Abraham Lincoln's anguish that those he served were put in harm's way while he himself could not be.

Ordinary people

After Sen. John Carey had expressed his gratitude to the soldiers, Sgt. 1st Class Nicely got his own chance at the podium, and took the opportunity to inform the crowd of some of the things that Company B achieved before they were ever called to Iraq.

As he spoke of their work performing disaster relief during numerous state emergencies, and their aid in constructing the Rock Hill High School football field, the audience was reminded that these were not men who by nature were bred for the battlefield.

The 216th is comprised of carpenters, plumbers, and electricians who rose to the call of a nation to be part of something larger than themselves, ordinary men and women thrust in to greatness by extraordinary circumstances.

It was Lt. Col. Scott Evans, Commander of the 216th, who best summed up the transformation that men had undergone during their absence.

"It's an amazing journey that we've had since I last stood up here, and let me tell you," Evans said, "it's a lot more comfortable now."

Evans could not have been prouder as he recited a laundry list of the soldier's achievements: More than 300 missions accomplished, 500 combat patrols, 33 Bronze Star recommendations, and 209 Army Commendation Medals.

It's no wonder the soldiers of the 216th had been nicknamed "The Workhorse of the Division" by the 1st Infantry Division which they supported.

One of the statistics that Evans seemed proudest of was that of the 24 Purple Hearts awarded to members of the 216th, not a single one was given to a member of Company B. The fighting men and women of Lawrence County had returned without a single scratch from enemy activity. They were safe, and now, finally, they were home.

The passing motorcade

The patriotism, pride and gratitude felt by the people of Ironton yesterday could not be contained by the walls of the Bowman Auditorium. It spread down Kent Avenue and onto 3rd Street where residents had gathered to cheer the men on amidst a forest of yellow balloons.

The troops' motorcade cut its way down the streets through the crowd towards the VFW as the locals cheered and held signs aloft in a show of support.

Some displayed the names of friends or family members in the 216th whom they had lived without for a year, tall, painted letters joined by drawings of American flags and yellow ribbons. But most simply shared the sentiment of the politicians, of the city, of the county, of the nation: "Thank you, thank you, thank you."