BANGOR, Maine — Yellow ribbons lined every telephone pole leading from Maine Avenue into the Maine Army National Guard’s aviation support facility near the airport.
Little American flags poked out of shirt pockets and rested in the hands of hundreds who had gathered more than an hour ahead of Wednesday’s most-anticipated arrival.
Spouses, children, other family members and fellow Guardsmen and women all waited patiently for the 81 members of the 286th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion to walk through the doors, ending a yearlong deployment.
When the troops did arrive shortly after 11 a.m., loud applause and whistles echoed off the metal walls of the guard facility. As the unit stood at attention waiting for the official word that they were dismissed from duty, 81 sets of eyes scanned the crowd looking for their respective loved ones.
When the dismissal came, chaos ensued. Soldiers scrambled to find their wives and husband, hug their children and let out much-deserved sighs.
“This is the day we look forward to,” said an emotional Lt. Col. Diane Dunn, commander of the 286th and the first female to lead a Maine Guard unit in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
Her family — husband Jim, daughters Kayla, 19, and Kristen, 17, and son Marcus, 10 — all were there to welcome Dunn home and they even put Christmas on hold until her return.
“It’s all part of the sacrifice that families make,” she said.
Dunn, who lives in Glenburn, led a logistical support unit that oversaw rations, fuel, supplies and other materials for thousands of combat troops in southern Afghanistan.
“I’ve spent 13 of my 21 years in the guard with this unit and it’s the best unit around,” she said. “They made my job so easy.”
Major Gen. John W. Libby, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, drove up from Augusta to attend Wednesday’s homecoming. He said he wished he only had to attend homecomings instead of sendoffs. Capt. Shanon Cotta, spokesman for the guard, said the fact that all guard members are volunteers and continue to volunteer knowing that it could entail a deployment, says a lot about the modern military.
Virginia Deboer knows plenty about that. Her son, Thomas Deboer, 26, was one of the 81 soldiers who returned as part of the 286th battalion, but she also has three other children — two sons and a daughter — who are scheduled to be deployed in March. All three are members of the Guard’s 1136th Transportation Company, which has 177 soldiers and locations in Bangor, Calais and Sanford, where Deboer lives.
“They lost their father at a very young age and learned the value of giving back to their community and country,” Deboer said of her children. “I’m so proud of all of them.”
Thomas Deboer’s wife, Ecaterina Deboer, 25, said she talked her husband often on the phone and through video-conferencing software such as Skype, but it’s no substitute for seeing him in person.
“There wasn’t a day that went by when I didn’t miss him,” she said.
Dunn said one of the things she missed most during her year in Afghanistan was buffalo wings from Geaghan’s Restaurant in Bangor.
“It’s sort of a family tradition,” she said. “Not the wings, but the social part of it.”