With signs held high and faces smiling, family and friends gathered at Cambridge-Isanti High School on Sunday to welcome 140 soldiers of the Minnesota National Guard home for Christmas.
Six-year-old Layla Saline held up two signs as her father and his fellow soldiers from the U.S. Army's 850th Horizontal Engineers Company walked into a gymnasium full of people elated to have them home after an eight-month deployment in Afghanistan.
The crowd cheered, applauded and whistled as the soldiers in tan khaki uniforms and hats filed into the gym shortly after noon. Outside, a huge American flag waved amid light flurries.
"Your our Hero" read one of Layla's signs. "Welcome Home Daddy. I Love You" said the other.
The Cambridge-based engineers, who hail from about 100 towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin, returned from building roads, clearing mines and being fired on over the last eight months in Afghanistan.
"You guys did an outstanding job," First Sgt. Jeffry Taylor told the unit standing in formation at attention on the basketball court with stands nearly full on both sides. "Now we are home and your families are waiting."
Layla, her mom and six siblings watched and waited.
"Fall out!" was barked. Cheers erupted, the formation dissolved and soldiers rushed to find loved ones. Tears flowed, and long heartfelt hugs enfolded spouses, parents and children.
Sgt. Terry Saline, 38, scooped up his daughter and hugged and kissed her and his wife, Jennifer. Then he hugged his six older children.
"I felt like I was 16 again and going to the prom," Saline said minutes later as he retrieved his duffel. "It felt so good; words can't describe it."
The company had no casualties or serious injuries, although one soldier suffered a concussion after an explosive device went off near his armored vehicle, Taylor said. He said that while building roads, their company often was shelled with mortars or fired upon. Accompanying infantry or cavalry units provided protection and dealt with the Afghan rebel attackers.
"Our job was to train Afghan army engineers in horizontal engineering, basically earth-moving for roads, repairs, culverts and ditches. We were shutting down bases and turning other bases over to the Afghans," Taylor said.
He said he looks forward to returning to his home and job with United Parcel Service, where "you don't have to worry about things in Afghanistan, like indirect fire" -- and staying alive.