ROCK FALLS, Ill. — For the families of the soldiers based in this rural town in north central Illinois, the war in Iraq came to a close Thursday.
That is when police cars, with sirens blaring and lights flashing, led a convoy of soldiers from the Illinois National Guard's 1644th Transportation Company down a narrow street lined with American flags and "welcome home" banners to the armory.
It had made little difference to the families and friends waiting inside that the fighting in Iraq had ended in December or that thousands of other troops had made it home in time for Christmas. The 167 members of the 1644th had to stay behind in Kuwait, tending to the aftermath of a war that lasted nearly nine years.
"I didn't sleep at all last night," said Maria Norwood, 40, of Chicago Heights, as she waited for her 22-year-old son, Spec. Michael Brooks, to arrive.
When her son was away, Norwood said, they talked on the telephone two or three times a week, and each time, they ended the conversations the same way.
"I would tell him, 'I love you and be safe.' And he would say, 'I love you and I will,'" she said. "Those were our special words to each other because I always worried that I might not see him again."
The brief homecoming ceremony Thursday marked the end of Illinois' role in the Iraq War. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, more than 25,600 troops from Illinois have deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 20,000 of them from the Illinois National Guard.
As the 1644th returned, another 145 soldiers from Chicago and other armories across the state were either preparing to leave for Afghanistan or were already there, a reminder to the families in Rock Falls that the threat of another deployment always hovers.
But this was not a day to think about what could happen in the future. It was a day for crying tears of joy, reuniting with families and spending time with young children, some of whom were born while the soldiers were away.
"It feels very surreal for us right now," Capt. Michael Barton, the company commander, told the crowd on behalf of the troops. "Today, it's about giving out high-fives, handshakes and hugs."
The Illinois soldiers were among 20,000 troops who remained in Kuwait after the war as part of the 1st Theater Sustainment Command, which was responsible for shipping equipment used in Iraq back to the United States or to Afghanistan. In the waning days of the war, the 1644th hauled more than 35,000 tons of cargo and transported more than 7,500 pieces of equipment from Iraq to the base in Arifjan, Kuwait.
Since their deployment to Iraq last July, the unit continually worked ahead of schedule, allowing them to return home three months early. For Sgt. Terry Jones II, who served alongside his father, Staff Sgt. Terry Jones Sr., it couldn't come soon enough.
Jones was in Iraq when his wife gave birth to their first child, Cadence, six months ago, an event he watched via Skype. He came home briefly a week later but had not seen her since.
"I'm just overwhelmed," said Jones, 24, as he held his daughter, who was dressed in a custom-made pink T-shirt that said "Welcome home daddy and grandpa" on the front with a heart made of camouflage material on the back. "There are no words that say how I feel right now."
All week long, his wife had been preparing for her husband's return. She cleaned the house. She stocked the refrigerator with his favorite foods. And she prepared to make pancakes for his breakfast on Friday, the only request he made.
"This morning, I felt nervous and then the excitement kicked in," said Amy Jones, 23, who has been married two years. "I've tried to mentally prepare for this since I found out he was coming home early, but I cry when I think about him interacting with (Cadence) now that she's growing up."
Having experienced two deployments with her husband, Cindy Jones, 57, had some advice for her daughter-in-law. The main thing, she said, is not to expect too much too soon.
"I told her to just be patient," she said. "It takes them a while to adjust and they need that time for themselves."
Like many of the families, the Joneses were planning to have a big Easter dinner Sunday. But at the Norwood home in Chicago Heights, the celebration would begin Thursday night with a family dinner including all of Brooks' favorite dishes.
"When he volunteered to serve, I was just heartbroken but I learned to accept it," said Norwood. "He was so committed and that gave me strength. Now I am so proud of him."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun