NACHOD, Czech Republic -- More than 2,000 people lined the streets of this small border town on Sunday to greet American soldiers as they crossed into the Czech Republic from Poland on their way home from an operation to demonstrate support for eastern allies rattled by Russian aggression in Ukraine.
This border crossing marked the beginning of the final stage of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment's Dragoon Ride, a show-of-force convoy operation that began nine days ago. Since then, soldiers maneuvered 120 military vehicles across Lithuania, Estonia and Poland as they wound their way back to their home base in Vilseck, Germany.
Though well-received by other host nations, the convoy unleashed fierce debate among the Czech people and politicians. On Saturday, thousands of people gathered in Prague, the capital, to demonstrate support for and opposition to the convoy and American foreign policy.
Vehement opposition from some quarters -- most prominently members of the Czech Communist Party -- raised concern among the Dragoons about the kind of welcome they would receive at the Czech border. On Sunday, those concerns proved to be unfounded, as thousands of Czechs braved rain and wind for several hours to greet the American troops.
The convoy came across in three groups, each stopping at the border to meet with residents, to take photographs and to greet local dignitaries. At some points, the enthusiastic crowd was so thick the convoy had difficulty passing through.
"I was expecting it to actually be the complete opposite way. I was expecting to see a lot less support out here," said Cpl. Tristan Miller of Iron Troop, 2nd Cavalry Regiment. "It's good to see that people were actually out here, seeing what we're actually trying to do and helping to build those relationships with all of these nations around us. We're not here just for Germany; we're here for all of Europe.
Josef Matyas, the main organizer of the Nachod welcoming committee, said the town was demonstrating support for NATO, of which the Czech Republic is a member, and for what that alliance means for their own safety.
"There is the great specter of Russia expanding. They already are in the Ukraine, and they've settled in Crimea, so it's important to know we're safe from Russian aggression," he said.
Besides organizing the warm welcome, Matyas arranged for 400 bottles of locally produced beer to be given to the soldiers as a show of thanks.
While Nachod may have surprised the Americans by the size and warmth of the welcoming party, not every resident was happy. A handful of anti-American activists showed up to protest the convoy. Like protesters in Prague on Saturday, they said they viewed the convoy as a deliberately provocative action.
"We want the Czech Republic to be a neutral and independent country," said Vojtech Rohlena, a member of the Czech Communist Party. "We don't want to be caught between American and Russian business."
Rohlena's contingent was a fraction of the size of the crowd that welcomed the Americans, with roughly 20 members. Miller said the turnout in Nachod -- a town with 21,000 residents -- was the biggest of any that greeted the Dragoons during their entire trek across Eastern Europe.
"The whole, entire way, there have been people along the roads, thanking us, waving to us, " Miller said. "We see American flags all over the place. It's been amazing, probably the highlight of my military career so far."