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Heroes Return

SUMMIT, Ky. — As a convoy of buses made its way down U.S. 23 from Portsmouth to Summit, Ky., Dawn Easterling waited anxiously with cell phone in hand.

“I just spoke with him and he just passed the Ashland mall,” Dawn said. “He’s eight minutes away.”

“He” was her husband, Todd Easterling, a Lawrence County Sheriff’s deputy who is also a member of Charley Company 206 of Paintsville, Ky., attached to the 201st National Guard Engineering Battalion of Ashland, Ky. And Thursday, Todd and 399 other soldiers came home after a 14-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Amy Adams, of Ironton, waited with Dawn in the parking lot of the Boyd County Middle School. Her husband, Rob, was on one of those buses, too.

“I am happy and I cannot wait,” Amy said. Of life without Rob these past 14 months, she said, “It’s been rough.”

A staff member at Mended Reeds, Rob did get to come home for two weeks last year but he had to go back.

“He can’t make it up but he can make it better,” Amy said.

Dawn’s cell phone buzzed again.

“He said they just passed the skating rink,” she said. That meant the husband she missed was only minutes away.

By the time the first bus had made into the middle school parking lot, there were tears in her eyes, by the time the bus carrying hubby pulled up and began to unload, the tears were rolling down her face.

Cantrell. Skeens, Fairchild, Gregory. Taylor. Ice. One by one soldiers departed and were scooped into the arms of waiting family members. One family had even hired a stretch Humvee limo from a Lexington, Ky., outfit to ferry their loved one home. Butcher. Tackett. And finally, Easterling.

“This feels great,” Todd said as he hugged his wife. “There’s no feeling like it.”

What did he miss most in his 14 months in Afghanistan?

“My wife,” he replied without missing a beat. It is unlikely Dawn will say goodbye to her husband again and watch him march off to war.

He retires from the guard next month after 20 years.

Dawn wasn’t the only person happy to see Todd. Three members of the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, deputies Carol Kitts and Jerry Elliott and Chief Deputy Jeff Hitchcock were in the procession of emergency services cars that followed in front of and behind those nine buses of soldiers.

During an official welcoming ceremony in the middle school gym, soldiers filed in, forming two lines on the sides of the gym floor as a couple thousand family members and friends cheered wildly.

When Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear got a standing ovation from the troops when he stepped to the podium to speak. Beshear found the turning of tables a bit odd, given the circumstances, and he said so.

“I should be standing to welcome you home,” Beshear said. Turning to the assembled throng he asked, “Haven’t they done a great job?”

He noted that the 201st had served under extremely difficult circumstances, in harm’s way. Among the 400 soldiers, there were 42 Purple Hearts earned and two deaths.

The battalion consists of units from Ashland, Olive Hill, Cynthiana and Prestonsburg.

The soldiers were responsible for clearing hundreds of acres of mine fields and destroying more than 14,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan.