Juneau is preparing a hero's welcome for its citizen soldiers who return to the capital this weekend after a year's deployment at war in Iraq.
The Alaska National Guard's Alpha Co., 3rd Battalion 297th Infantry returned to Anchorage on Friday, and nearly 30 of those soldiers will come all the way home to Juneau on Sunday. A few soldiers may arrive as early as Saturday.
"I know these guys are excited to come home," said Kim Leary, a coordinator for the Guard's Family Assistance Center. "We're just so happy that they are all coming home."
Although the soldiers already had a big welcome-back celebration upon their return to Anchorage, Capital City Republican Women member Gale Sinnott said the soldiers deserve heroes' treatment upon returning to Juneau as well.
"We should remember that these are our co-workers, neighbors, friends, husbands, brothers, sons," she said. "I think it's important to say that we appreciate what they've done and to show them support."
CCRW will tie yellow ribbons on trees today, hang a banner on Merchants Wharf and make yellow lapel pins. The group, which has sent care packages and cards to the troops throughout their deployment, has also had 1,500 signs printed up thanking the troops, and begun placing them in the windows of businesses. A couple of National Guard soldiers will hang nearly 500 of the signs throughout town today.
Maj. Joel Gilbert said he can hardly wait to get back to Juneau after a year in the Middle East.
"I'm looking forward to seeing the mountains and the glaciers and the clean air," he said. "For a year we smelled burning trash. We smelled human feces."
Gilbert's wife and two children went to Anchorage for the soldiers' return, but he said their return to Juneau will give them more time to spend together as a family. He said he looks forward to "some really nice, basic events" with the family, such as hiking and taking their two dogs for walks.
Gilbert said the troops were extremely happy to be back in Alaska after a year in Iraq and a 29-hour flight that took them from Kuwait to Anchorage with stops in Germany, Iceland and Illinois.
"Once we made it to Alaska, there was a lot of cheers on the plane," Gilbert said.
Laura Gilbert said there were a lot of emotions when she saw her husband and the other soldiers.
"It was pretty exciting. Lots of tears and lots of people," she said. "Lots of hollering. It was very exciting."
Leary said the Family Assistance Center is hoping to get as many people as possible to show up at the airport on Sunday to welcome the troops back. Exact times of flights were not known at press time, but will be announced to the community in the coming days.
"We need to show support because these are our community members," Leary said. "And soon they will be back in their civilian jobs here in Juneau."
CCRW is planning for a major celebration on April 9, because several of the soldiers must finish some military training in Anchorage before they can return home to Juneau. The location of the event is yet to be determined.
Joel Gilbert said the deployment went well overall and the soldiers accomplished a number of positive things.
"It was trying, but it was also rewarding in many ways," he said.
Things he will remember include handing out school supplies, nearly 6 tons of clothes to needy Iraqis, and more than 300 soccer balls to children. After helping clear a farming area of seven bombs, Gilbert said it was a good feeling providing a safe area for the children to play.
All the support from the community and the care packages sent from Alaska helped get the soldiers through, Gilbert said.
"It really made it feel like home. It was really appreciated," he said.
Eric Morrison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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