Several local National Guardsmen will be returning home to their families this weekend, just in time for Easter.
The 131 members of the Covington-based B Co. 1-121st Infantry, with the Georgia National Guard’s 48th Brigade, returned to the country over the past two weeks after a year-long mission in Afghanistan.
The homecoming was joyful and pride-inspiring, said Kim Schroeder, family readiness group chairperson for Bravo Company, who was among the several families that greeted the troops at Fort Stewart in Savannah. Schroeder was there for her son, Spc. Zachary Schroeder, but said she had developed a close bond with many his comrades.
"It was the most exciting moment of my lfie, seeing those soldiers march across the field. My friend asked, ‘Isn’t the birth of your son more exciting?’ but I said that happened when I was young," Schroeder said, who lives in Conyers.
She said all of the kids present made the welcome-home event that much more special, whether it was the daughter in her red, white and blue dress or the son standing tall and looking serious, mimicking his marching father.
"All the kids were there playing; they were just waiting for their daddies. ‘I’m just waiting for my daddy!’ They were so excited. No matter how many delays we had had all week, we were like ‘Yes! Our soldiers are coming home today'," she said. "Some soldiers got to see their kids for the first time. There were a lot of babies. A lot of them were also born right before guys left. Now they're a year old and walking and they don't even know their daddy. That was cool too."
The joy was amplified, because out of the entire company, only two soldiers were injured while in Afghanistan. Only a handful of soldiers are actually from Newton County, but Major John Alderman said about 40 percent of the unit are from Newton and its surrounding counties. Several soldiers earned awards for their service, and those will be handed out in June.
During their year in Afghanistan, the soldiers helped train Afghan National Security Forces in the Paktika province in southeast Afghanistan. They partnered with, lived and fought with the Afghan National Army, police and border police. Many of the locations they occupied were occupied only by Special Forces or never at all, according to a press release.
Local homecoming celebrations are being planned, but they will not take place until May 1 at the earliest; this will give the troops time to reunite with families and become reacquainted with civilian life.
Schroeder said the wives of the troops were incredibly resilient during their husband's absences. Over the past year, they were helped by the group Operation Patriot's Call. Schroeder said the group was started to help families in need and about eight families used the group's services over the past year, for things like a house flood, an electrical problem and car repairs.
In addition to helping families in the U.S., the group also sent supplies to the troops. Schroeder said more than 50 business, organizations and individuals helped throughout the year.
"For our soldiers to have that piece of mind; it was great. They knew they had all that the support of the community of Covington and Conyers," she said.
Another local group Operation Sandbox focused even more so on meeting soldier's needs; not only Covington's but those around Georgia and the U.S. Run by local residents Virginia Pearson and her daughter Julie, the group sent between 25 and 40 packages to soldiers per week every week. The packages contained snacks, hygiene items, fans, microwaves, fridges, coffee pots, toasters and even electronics. Pearson said she and the numerous people in the community who help with Operation Sandbox probably shipped nearly $15,000 to troops this past year.
"I'm so excited that they are coming home. They're my babies. They refer to me as their den mom. I've gotten to know those guys and have grown to love them over the last five years," she said.
Just because Bravo Company is returning home, that doesn't mean Operation Sandbox will stop. For more information about how to donate to the cause or volunteer visit operationsandboxga.com or call (770) 784-9155.
Pearson said she is planning a small get together with the troops at Outback, after they've had a chance to settle in.
Sen. John Douglas (R-Social Circle) greeted the troops in Savannah and said he was proud to welcome them home.
"It's hard to describe the feeling, like New Years' and the Fourth of July all rolled into one. It's so uplifting and inspiring to see them all smiling and happy and getting off the airplane," he said.