WEST POINT, Va., Feb. 23 -- The armory here, nearly bursting with the joy and impromptu jigs of soldiers being welcomed home from Iraq, fell suddenly silent Wednesday as two families, their faces tear-streaked, stood to accept plaques for two who did not come home, victims of a mess-tent bombing in December.
Reunited husbands and wives, parents and children, moved closer to each other. Arms went around waists, hands sought out backs.
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"I feel guilty. I feel selfish," whispered Susan Newsom, 46, of Gloucester County. Her son, Nathan Almquist, was among the 525 soldiers of the Virginia National Guard's 276th Engineer Battalion who returned Wednesday, after 13 months, to four sunny, unseasonably warm homecomings at four armories.
Company C arrived at this tiny riverside town without Spec. Nicolas Conan Mason, 20, of King George County and Spec. David A. Ruhren, 20, of Stafford County, the battalion's only casualties.
Some members of the battalion might be sent back to Iraq -- where many National Guard enlistees never expected to be sent in the first place. But for now, they have three months off, and West Point gave its contingent what Mayor Andy Conklin called "a real Middle America welcome" to inaugurate their vacation.
The 120 members of Company C rolled into town on three buses and right into whooping fire truck sirens and a parade down Main Street. Soldiers in desert camouflage danced in the street, grinning as they passed saluting traffic officers and received the embraces of weeping strangers.
Henry Kopacki, 80, who wore a cap proclaiming his service with the Marines in World War II, cried as he hugged Sgt. 1st Class Peter Marshall, 36, in front of Las Tunas Mexican Restaurant. "Thank you," Kopacki said.
"Thank you," Marshall replied.
Penny Spruitt, 48, a bank loan officer, hugged about a dozen of the soldiers as they tumbled off the bus. She knew none of them, but their safe return had a special meaning to her.
"My 21-year-old son is going sometime this year, and it's real emotional," Spruitt said. "I'm just real thankful they got home safely."
Company C flew into Fort Dix, N.J., this month, but Wednesday was the real thing. As they approached the parade route, they joked about stopping for a margarita and noted that a local minister was just putting the final "s" on his "God Bless Our Troops" sign as their buses rolled by.
"I'm tired of sleeping around all these guys," said Sgt. Sinque Swales, 28, of Chesterfield County.
But after the parade and a stop at the town's single school, the soldiers rounded the corner to the National Guard Armory and their waiting families, and the volume rose. Soldiers snapped photos through the bus windows and begged the driver to just pick a spot and stop.
After arranging and rearranging the potato salad and cookies for three impatient hours, waiting relatives ran after the bus, and the reunion that was supposed to take place inside under balloons took place instead in the dusty parking lot.