TYRONE - Spc. Lance McGee summed up the sentiments of returning Pennsylvania National Guardsmen who rolled into Tyrone Tuesday amidst cheers and the flicker of sun-drenched flags.
"It's great to be home," said the 23-year-old Huntingdon resident and veteran of two tours in Iraq as he held his 15-month-old son, James.
McGee's wife, Samantha, said her husband has only seen their boy once since the 2nd Battalion, 112th Infantry, 56th Stryker Brigade was deployed last September, first for stateside training before leaving for Iraq in January.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Spc. Michael Friedenberger of Bellwood gives his son, Trenton, 2, a hug after arriving in Tyrone Tuesday afternoon with fellow soldiers from the 56th Stryker Brigade. His wife, Ashley, was also there to greet him.
"I almost didn't recognize him," McGee said of his son.
As the door to the soldiers' charter bus swung open, Charlie Company soldier and Tyrone native Sgt. Gunner Richards made a beeline to his wife.
Choked with emotion, Richards, 39, said despite spending the last five days at New Jersey's Fort Dix, it didn't feel like he was coming home until the bus, escorted by a convoy of police cruisers and firetrucks, pulled into Tyrone.
"I'm home now, buddy," Richards said, smiling. "I don't want to leave home again."
Richards' mother, Sara, said the worrying was over now that her son was back home.
"Even though we see him on the webcam, it's not the same," she said.
Sara Richards said that her son's return coincided with the Grange Fair in Centre County, so he'd have a ready-made opportunity to see his relatives on both sides of the family.
First Sgt. Mike Swartz of Duncansville said the year presented a variety of missions for the men of the Stryker Brigade, who "did an outstanding job." Swartz, who was responsible for 166 men, said the tour left him "knowing what you're made of and what you can do for your guys."
And coming home to an enthusiastic community wasn't lost on the men.
"It's great to be home to see the community support like this - just outstanding," Swartz said.
Former state Representative and Secretary of Agriculture Samuel E. Hayes Jr., whose son, Lt. Col. Samuel E. Hayes III, is the Lewistown-based 2nd Battalion's commander, recalled his return from the Vietnam War and said returning from combat reminds one that this is the greatest country in the world.
"It's deja vu," the elder Hayes said, noting that while one of his sons has returned, another of his three sons, Lee, who is a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, remains in Iraq.
"I'm glad for all these families," Hayes said as he awaited for the arrival of the troops. He pointed out that his son Sam was born while he was in Vietnam and said that it was unfortunate that there were some casualties, but that getting the men home was a top priority for his son.
"He was concerned about getting everyone back as soon as possible," he said.
Duncansville dad Ernie Swartz said, "It doesn't seem real yet," about seeing his son, Jordan, return.
"It's wonderful," Ernie Swartz said. "I couldn't wait to see his face."
Spc. Jordan Swartz, 26, is also the cousin of the 2nd Battalion's fallen, Spc. Chad A. Edmundson. Edmundson, 20, of Williamsburg died May 27 from injuries suffered from a roadside bomb while on patrol with Bravo Company, based at the Frankstown Armory.
"It was real tough," Jordan Swartz said of Edmundson's death.
Now that he's home, the soldier of six years said he is "just going to play it as it goes," although he said he did learn something about himself during his first tour of in Iraq.
"That I can make it through a hard time and drive on with a mission," Jordan Swartz said.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.