Nine American soldiers who spent much of the past year building bridges in Afghanistan stepped onto the tarmac Sunday at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.
Arriving on two flights, the California National Guard members from Santa Rosa, Windsor, Rohnert Park, Cloverdale and Ukiah arrived home to a horde of flag-waving loved ones and a legion of Sonoma County's public-safety workers.
Six soldiers arrived on the 5:30 p.m. flight from Seattle, walked through rows of honor guard at attention and into the arms of family.
And while for most it was family members who brought the balloons and gifts, Spc. Troy Tsuji handed his wife a bouquet of flowers he carried from Seattle.
"This is overwhelming," said his wife, Ana, after a tender, rocking hug with her husband.
"I've been waiting for this moment," said Sgt. Albert Manfredini, 34, of Ukiah, his arms around his wife, Erica.
"It's the best feeling in the world," said Sgt. 1st Class Jessamyn Sobecki-Engle of Cloverdale, surrounded by her family.
The soldiers, including three of their peers who arrived on a 9:08 p.m. flight from Los Angeles, belong to the Redding-based company of the Guard's 579th Engineer Battalion, headquartered in Santa Rosa.
They returned from Helmand Province, where they repaired and built bridges and ran convoy security missions.
In addition to Tsuji, Manfredini and Sobecki-Engle, those returning Sunday included Spc. Cody Abercrombie of Santa Rosa, Spc. Aaron Adams of Cotati, Spc. Miguel Correa of Windsor, Spc. Richard McKee of Rohnert Park, Spc. Michael Snider of Ukiah and Spc. Michael Sramek of Santa Rosa.
The simplest phrase -- "Hi, Mom" -- held new power for Sramek, 23, as he greeted his mother.
"Seeing my son was fantastic," said his father, Bruce Sramek. "I'm just so glad he's home."
Reunions among family and friends bubbled over with laughter in the small airport. Children bounded around with balloons.
"Every time we talked on the phone, I didn't realize how much emotion I had until we hung up," said Bill McKee, father of Richard McKee, 27, of Rohnert Park. "It feels wonderful to have him home and safe."
Bill McKee said he thought it would just be a few family members at the airport, and he was overwhelmed by the crowd of people who filled the airport lobby to cheer the soldiers' return.
Two days ago, word began to spread of the soldiers' imminent return, and friends scrambled to put together gift baskets with donated goodies like wine, jam and gift certificates and to get a local guitarist to play at the airport restaurant.
Santa Rosa police and members of the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle club escorted motorcades from the airport to the homes of the soldiers, some leaving in limosines provided by friends.
On the way out, they drove under the arc of raised firetruck ladders bridging Airport Boulevard and decorated with a massive U.S. flag.
Some among the group may return to Afghanistan later in the year with the Petaluma-based 235th Engineer Company.
Michael Snider, 26, a 2005 Ukiah High School graduate, said he plans to study sports medicine.
Sobecki-Engle said she will return to full-time work with the Guard through a brigade in Fairfield.
For now, most of their peers are focused on enjoying the simple pleasures. Sramek sat down with his family at a table to sip a much-deserved beer.
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