MONTROSE – Patriotism is alive in Montrose.
Hundreds lined Main Street on Friday, Jan. 13, to welcome home from Afghanistan the 928th Area Support Medical Company of the Colorado Army National Guard.
Hats came off in a show of respect and shouts of "Thank you!" echoed as the unit made its way along the half-mile walk to Friendship Hall.
It was an emotional homecoming that was a year in the waiting.
"Personally, this [celebration] makes all the sacrifice worth it," said Tony McDonald, a motor sergeant for the 928th and a Delta resident.
The unit – dubbed the Witch Doctors – was deployed to Afghanistan almost exactly one year ago to support the 44th Medical Brigade; during deployment, the Witch Doctors helped 41,000 patients. By Jan. 12, the soldiers of the 928th had returned to Montrose safely.
And for that, there was reason to celebrate, said Sgt. Rick Bresett of the Colorado National Guard (and a former Witch Doctor).
Bresett, who organized the City of Montrose’s warm sendoff for the soldiers in January 2011, said he was even more excited to be organizing their homecoming celebration, for which he spent the last few weeks collecting donations to buy Christmas gifts for the soldiers and their families.
"This is the way we needed to do it," he said.
The soldiers were first greeted as they made their way off a chartered flight at Montrose Regional Airport, on Thursday evening.
The soldiers spent the night with their families at a local hotel. On Friday morning, they were loaded onto military trucks at the Montrose Armory, where they were joined by a convoy of emergency and service vehicles, flags waving as they traveled down North Townsend Ave.
The parade gathered a dozen more vehicles with flags, veteran support and motorcycles as it made its way down Main Street to the celebration point at Friendship Hall. Businessmen and women, families and other community members came onto the street to applaud the men and women of the 928th.
The route was complete at Friendship Hall, for an hour-long grand celebration that included the Montrose High School band, family members and several hundred community members.
Among the cheers and excitement, a grandmother bent over to show her young grandson how to put his hand on his heart. A few seats away, a 3-year-old boy put his tiny hand to his forehead in a salute as the soldiers made their way into the hall.
Smiles and tears were in abundance as the soldiers rejoined their families. There were long hugs, heartfelt handshakes and kisses, and even a marriage proposal, from the 928th's Sgt. Matthew Colson to Elena Cortez, both of Colorado Springs, after she was summoned to the stage from the stands.
As the soldiers contemplated their transition from war to peace, they reflected on effects of the year they spent far away.
"Understanding the grief my family went through over here, the hardship on them, that was the toughest on me," said Daniel Gibson, of Montrose.
The toughest thing for McDonald, he said, was not being there for his granddaughter's first steps, though he was able to see them on the Internet.
To help ease the soldiers’ transition to civilian life, Bresett collected funds to buy substantially discounted Ross Reel fly rods for each man and woman in the unit.
"You get jerked up out of your life and lifestyle and go to a country where nothing is normal and live in those conditions … away from everyone and everything you know; it puts you in a very vulnerable situation," Bresett said.
"It's not easy unless they realize that when they come back, their community is there to support them," he said. "So, when we pull out the red carpet like this, as was the intention with the fly rods, it allows them to connect with something that they were connected to before they left."