By TOMIE PARKS
It was a camouflaged Christmas Saturday. Literally.
Dozens of Army bags and holiday decorations decked the halls at the Texas Army National Guard armory in Taylor as a crowd of about 100 awaited the homecoming of the Guard’s Alpha Troop.
“The luggage made it to Taylor before the troop did,” said Lila Beard, of Austin, the troop’s family readiness group leader. “They’re all coming home from Iraq.”
The 63 Army duffels didn’t have to wait long for their owners, though.
They landed at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport about 10:30 Saturday morning and were crossing Taylor’s Main Street by 12:30 p.m. When the bus carrying the soldiers was in view, the children – who had gathered at the front corner of the parking lot – started to shout, “Honk your horn; here they come.”
Police sirens sounded and motorcycle engines revved as officers from the Taylor and Hutto Police Departments and riders from the Patriot Guard led the parade as marshals.
The bus carrying the soldiers parked on Main Street underneath an arched pair of fire truck ladders that donned a Texas flag.
As the soldiers came off the bus one by one, the scene was amuck with frantic embraces, passionate kisses and yells of “welcome home.”
Finally, after a year and a half of running security operations at Camp Kirkuk in Iraq, the soldiers were able to reunite with their families.
“The first thing I’m going to do is play with these kids,” said a grinning Sergeant Eric Strelsky, of Caldwell, as he lovingly tackled his three children: Kirsten, Carter and Landen.
The preschoolers, along with their mother Nicole, had waited more than an hour for Eric’s return. They were carrying signs that said, “All I want for Christmas is Daddy.”
“We are so excited to have him back,” Nicole said, with tears beginning to well in her eyes.
The separation was hard because communication was scarce.
“The Internet connection wasn’t too good,” Nicole said. “We were only able to (make internet calls with) Skype about once a month. But that’s okay because he’s home now and it is Christmas.”
After the wave of family reunions subsided a bit, everyone gathered inside the armory for the official debriefing and dismissal of duty.
Closing words were by Captain Travis Urbanek, of Richmond, and First Sergeant Charles Roach, of Round Rock.
Taylor Mayor-Pro Tem John McDonald helped conclude the ceremony by welcoming the soldiers – whose hometowns span the state from Amarillo to Brownsville – to Taylor.
“We truly thank you for your service and hope you enjoy your time in Taylor,” McDonald said.
And after Capt. Urbanek released the soldiers to their families, the crazed merriment resumed. Holiday music played as gifts were exchanged and people hugged. A hearty barbecue dinner was there as well for all to enjoy.
At the event was Josh Hilton, of Taylor, a specialist from the Alpha Troop who was able to return from Iraq earlier this year in August.
“I came out to show my support,” Hilton said. “It gives me great joy to see my guys come home safe and alive.”
His advice to those just coming home is to relax and take it easy.
“But work hard to reintegrate into civilization,” Hilton said. “Life doesn’t stop.”
Beard said Saturday’s homecoming was a success.
“It all went smoothly,” Beard said. “So now I want to express my appreciation for the Taylor community. We had so much support from everyone to pull this off. I thank the town for helping me take care of these guys.”