Surrounded by strangers hugging on him after he got off the chartered bus, Staff Sgt. Corey White of Gainesville was overcome with emotions.
“Without your support, we are nothing. The cards, the boxes, the prayers most definitely - I’m just thankful, thankful to be here,” he said.
“We’re thankful to have you here,” said one of the flag-waving supporters to his side. “And we’re thankful you went over there and did your job and did it well.”
White was among a dozen or so soldiers returning Nov. 19 to the Gainesville-based 802nd Ordnance Company’s U.S. Army Reserve armory off Shallowford Road.
The unit returned from Afghanistan, where it had been deployed for about a year, arriving Sunday at Fort Stewart near Savannah.
“Everybody’s doing great: Spirits are high, nobody hurt, no injuries, no loss of life or limb,” said Sgt. 1st Class Samuel Levester, the company’s rear detachment commander in Gainesville, earlier this week.
At the time, he said that some soldiers would be leaving the base with their families to head home. Remaining soldiers took Friday night’s bus ride to Gainesville, where they met up with families and friends.
A police escort accompanied the bus as it pulled into the armory, where flag-waving supporters met the group with loud cheers and shouts of “Welcome home!”
“It’s a beautiful feeling,” White said. “I get to see all the people that loved and supported us over here.”
Sgt. 1st Class Phillip Kelly was smiling as he mixed in with supporters, who were exchanging hugs with soldiers.
“It’s been a long year and we did a whole lot. I’m just glad everybody made it home safe - the whole unit, everyone,” said Kelly, who is from Lovejoy. “It’s a good deal.”
Stephen Doss of Dawsonville arrived to pick up a friend, Pfc. Joseph Wyant of Ellijay.
“I’ve talked to his stepdad every day since he’s been gone - at least every other day - and called and checked up on him,” he said. “His dad couldn’t make it and his mom is sick, so I came over here to get him.”
Debbie Gainer of Murrayville was one of about 10 people who showed up to welcome home the troops.
“I’ve worked with (Operation) Patriot’s Call the whole time Charlie Company was gone, and we transferred over to this unit,” she said. “And my husband is a veteran and my heart just goes out (to the soldiers).”
“I see that bus rolling in and I want to cry, because I know that they are home safe and I know what they have done for us. They have given up a lot.”
Operation Patriot’s Call is a local military support group that sponsored a homecoming celebration in June for Charlie Company, a Georgia Army National Guard unit based off Alta Vista Road in Gainesville.
That unit returned to the U.S. from Afghanistan in late March.
The homecoming event at Lakeshore Mall ended with a ceremonial passing of a guidon, or military identification flag, in anticipation of the return of the 802nd.
A more formal celebration for the 802nd’s return is planned in March. Details are still being worked out.