Accompanied by bagpipers, leather-clad motorcyclists, fire engines and more than a few tears, the little city of Winchester threw an exuberant celebration Saturday to welcome 180 members of the local National Guard unit returning after a year's deployment in Afghanistan.
Hundreds of residents, friends and family members lined a mile-and-a-half parade route, waving flags and banners and calling out "Welcome home!" as the smiling men marched by.
For many -- especially the families of the men, who had lost two members of their unit -- it was an emotional moment.
"Corey!" shouted Andria Shifflett, waving a homemade sign when she spied her son Spec. Corey Shifflett riding up on the back seat of a convertible. Shifflett, 19, had been injured in a land mine explosion.
"COREY!" his mother screamed again, before her voice broke and tears streamed down from under her sunglasses. She buried her face in her sister's shoulder.
The battalion, the first Winchester National Guard unit to be deployed since World War II, left for Afghanistan last July after four months of combat training. The unit returned to Fort Bragg, N.C., on July 16, and a number of family members traveled there to greet them.
But for many, the return to Winchester was the true homecoming.
As buses delivering the men from Fort Bragg pulled up at the parade's starting point, Ginny Lee ran from one to another, searching for her 21-year-old son, Spec. Keith Lee Diamond.
Finally, Diamond strode over after getting off the last bus. His mother flew at him, and he wrapped his arms around her. For a moment, they wordlessly rocked back and forth in each other's embrace.
"I love you," she said.
"I love you, too," her son replied.
At the worn brick armory downtown, where the post-parade party was held, Sgt. Barry Hale couldn't stop nuzzling his 16-month-old daughter, Delaney, who was perched in his arms. He had seen her just four times since her birth.
"At first, she was standoffish," Hale said. Delaney put her head down on her dad's shoulder, and Hale grinned. "Now, she's getting kind of cuddly."
Earlier in the day, family members whirled in and out of the armory, just west of downtown, getting ready for the parade, the reception and party.
Michelle Nelson, wife of unit commander Capt. Mark J. Nelson, was deploying wives to their own assignments. "Somebody is going to pick up toilet paper," she said. "I know the bathrooms here are out."
They debated whether to release 180 balloons when the men reached the armory. One wife said she thought they were a danger to birds.
"Birds; husband," said Sarah Springer, 46, wife of Sgt. Wayne Springer, laughing as she weighed the choices with her hands.
"Husbands!" someone yelled, and everyone cracked up.
"It's just a little end-of-deployment humor," Sarah Springer said.
The event was coordinated by the unit's Family Readiness Group, which has been working assiduously since the men left to keep them connected to the community.
As it turned out, the group's members said, the entire city of Winchester pitched in. Schools, churches and businesses sent thousands of letters of support to the men. Residents cooked meals for the families left behind, mowed their lawns, baby-sat for their kids. They donated enough items -- DVDs, candy, balls, clothing -- to fill 300 boxes. Even the boxes and postage to mail them to Afghanistan were donated, Michelle Nelson said.
Their city's response to their deployment stunned the troops.
"It's incredible what they've done," said Maj. Scott Smith. "It means a lot for everyone deployed to know that this town did so much."
The walls of the armory were blanketed with banners and posters. More than 100 hand-colored cards from the Orchard View Elementary School second grade fluttered in the warm breeze flowing through the open doors.
"WELCOME HOME YOUR SAFE NOW," said one. "YOU FAUGHT GOOD."