The original squad included about 170 soldiers, but a large number left for their west and middle Tennessee homes from Smyrna earlier in the day. Another group headed for their hero’s reception in Alcoa.
The majority of those unloading from two buses at the local armory were from Cleveland, Athens, Chattanooga, Dunlap, Ooltewah and surrounding towns. It came on a sultry afternoon when the Heat Index sweltered well into triple digits, but loved ones weren’t deterred.
One was Heather Frizzell of Cleveland who arrived at 11 a.m. when the armory opened its doors. The buses didn’t roll in until 3 p.m. so her wait was a long, hot one, but she said it didn’t matter. She and Spc. John Frizzell have been married only six months. Their wedding came in February when he came home on a two-week leave.
“I am very, very excited,” she said with a tired, yet excited smile. She laughed, “I didn’t want to miss him!” The couple will make up for some lost time in August. They’ll spend a combination honeymoon and welcome-home reunion in Daytona Beach.
The soldier’s absence was tough on the young bride.
“It was extremely emotional for me,” Frizzell said from within the crowded armory an hour before the buses rolled in. Wiping away what could have been a tear as much as perspiration, she added, “We had only been married a week before he had to leave again.”
An hour later, she was in her husband’s arms. Still in his soldier’s fatigues, Spc. Frizzell told a reporter simply, “It’s great to be home.”
Asked if the southeast Tennessee heat wave reminded him of the past year in the desert, he laughed and pointed out a couple of weeks ago the afternoon mercury in the distant Mideast battlefield hit 151 degrees.
Of seeing his bride, he used her earlier words, “I only had a week with her before having to go back to Iraq. We have some catching up to do.”
Another group of Cleveland loved ones — a large group — were those awaiting the return of Spc. Matthew Edgeworth. His wife, Amber, and their two little ones, daughter Jenna and son Carson, and his mom, Pam Ogle, waited in the feverish heat with everyone else. But they didn’t mind because their soldier was returning home.
“We’re just so excited,” Ogle said of her son’s return. “We just want to see him and hold him. We’re excited that they’re all coming back home safe and sound.”
Theirs was one of many colorful, patriotic, handmade signs being pumped up and down into the afternoon’s blue skies that were laced with slow-moving puffy white clouds, seemingly serving as beacons that the buses were getting nearer.
One family traveled from Illinois to welcome home Spc. Jordan McGrath of Ooltewah. They were decked in patriotic red, white and blue and held balloons of the same color.
DeAnna Meeks, the proud mom of Spc. Joshua Meeks of Dunlap, brought 20 family members with her in what was fast-becoming a family reunion.
“I’m extremely happy and so very relieved,” she said while waiting inside the festive armory. “Now, I can relax. We’ve all been tense for the past year. The others (family members) wouldn’t even let me watch the news or read the papers while Josh was over there.”
The family tried to stay in touch, but telephone connections were poor so they relied mostly on the Internet.
“The Internet helped a lot,” she offered as a tiny American flag bobbed up and down from her tied-back hair each time she spoke. Asked which family members came with her, it would have been easier to name those who didn’t make the trip. Her group of Josh-watchers included aunts, uncles, the soldier’s twin brother, nieces, nephews, in-laws, Josh’s fiancee Kimberly Michaels of Whitwell ... just to name a few.
Kathey Powell of Chattanooga, the mom of Spc. Tabitha Higgins, said with an ear-to-ear grin, “It feels great to have my daughter back!” Asked what mom and daughter were going to do after getting back home, she offered, “We’re going to hang out ... talk ... we’re going to do a lot of things together. Just us. I am so proud of her.”
So is Tabitha’s high school Junior ROTC instructor James Creamer of Ringgold High School in Georgia, who also made the welcome-back trip to Cleveland. “She was an awesome student,” Creamer said. “She was one of my company commanders.”
Creamer said he believes the young soldier will go career for awhile.
“This has been part of her plan for life,” the ROTC instructor said. “This has given her opportunities that she didn’t have before.”
Debbi Aumaugher of Lenoir City, the ecstatic mom of Sgt. James Aumaugher, waited patiently much of the afternoon in the shade of some nearby pine trees, along with a swarm of exuberant, flag-waving loved ones representing other families and additional soldiers.
“I am just overwhelmed with emotion right now,” she said. “I have been trying to keep the tears in check all day. It’s just overwhelming. I’m so excited. I’m just really excited right now.” When news arrived that the buses were headed down Dalton Pike, her excitement sent her sailing from the comfort of the shade to the nearest curb of the armory entrance.
Sgt. Warren Heminger of Chattanooga was also overwhelmed in his homecoming because there waiting for him was his son, Spc. Drake Heminger, who had just returned from Iraq less than two weeks earlier with fellow members of the 278th Armored Regiment of the Tennessee National Guard.
“It’s fantastic,” Warren Heminger said. “To come back home and to have my son here waiting for me ... it’s just fantastic.” It’s a small world, but the elder Heminger said he and his son never hooked up while in Iraq.
Yet another family on hand early in the day was Zach and Heather Young, and their daughter, Alex, who traveled from Chickamauga, Ga. to welcome their cousin, Spc. Thomas Parrish.
“We’re just excited to have him home,” Young said. “It feels great.”
Sheila Cannon of Chattanooga, the mom of Spc. Jeff Cannon who was also in the returning group, said the response Sunday by the families was overwhelming. Although not in the military, she is the family readiness group coordinator for the 252nd MP. Her role is to disseminate information from the commanding officers to the families of 170 soldiers. She was also in charge of Sunday’s welcoming ceremonies which included no formalities — just a big welcome by hundreds of flag-waving family members, and lots and lots of bottled water and food.
An hour before the soldiers’ arrival, Cannon said, “It has really turned out big ... and families are still coming in!” She breathed a sigh of relief after learning that the buses were on the road. Their original ETA had been “somewhere between 1 and 3 p.m. our time.” They were coming from Smyrna, just east of Nashville, so all looked on-schedule until she learned one of the buses might have a problem. It could have pushed the ETA back to 5 p.m., but the problem was resolved and another catastrophe was avoided, she said with a laugh.
“Everyone is coming home safely,” she said. “But it has been a long deployment. It has been a long year and we are just ready to get them all home.”
The 252nd was deployed to Al Kut, Iraq in July 2009.