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155th returns to SD: ‘Nation is forever in your debt’

RAPID CITY -- The wait is over. Amid a sea of red, white and blue, 162 soldiers of the 155th Engineer Company were welcomed home at a Saturday afternoon ceremony following a nearly year-long deployment to Kuwait. More than 700 people gathered at ...

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Specialist Eric Simonton kisses his 3-year-old son Ethan prior to the welcome home ceremony for the 155th Engineer Company at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City. Members of the 155th spent the past 11 months on a mission in Kuwait. (Matt Gade/Republic)

RAPID CITY -- The wait is over.

Amid a sea of red, white and blue, 162 soldiers of the 155th Engineer Company were welcomed home at a Saturday afternoon ceremony following a nearly year-long deployment to Kuwait.

More than 700 people gathered at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City, but were forced to tack on an extra two hours to their 10-month reunion with the soldiers. The soldiers, many of whom are from the Wagner area, flew into Rapid City from Fort Bliss, Texas, in two groups of approximately 80. The first arrived shortly after 1 p.m. Mountain time, but the second group's flight from Texas was delayed and didn't arrive until after 3 p.m., causing the welcome home ceremony's beginning to be postponed from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

But the delay didn't dampen celebrations.

See a photo gallery of the welcome home here.

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Each of the two times buses arrived at the Civic Center, a sea of emotions overtook both the soldiers, and their families and friends. With no shortage of tears, smiles, laughs and praise, wives and husbands embraced for the first time in months, fathers hugged young children who were infants at the time of their departure, and friends were reunited.

The 155th’s most recent detachment, which deployed in August, is the second mobilization of the unit. The 155th deployed to Kuwait in support of Operation Noble Eagle in 2002-2003.

Many community members wore shirts designed and printed prior to the 155th's deployment that read "We wait, we hope, we pray for those deployed for a safe return home," while still others donned similar shirts with alternate phrases like "Proudly supporting the 155th" and "Welcome home."

“This nation is forever in your debt,” Maj. Gen. Timothy Reisch said, adding it will be important for the soldiers to transition slowly back into civilian life. “This can be challenging for some … Please know that we have people right here whose job it is to help soldiers work with their families.”

The ceremony featured speakers Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender, U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, Sen. John Thune, Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Reisch. Sen. Mike Rounds was expected to attend but was not present for the ceremony.

And each speaker spoke highly of the 155th unit.

According to Daugaard, over the unit’s 10-month service, 67,000 hours of work were logged and 18 members were promoted. For 101 of the 162 members, the mission to Kuwait was their first deployment and 14 servicemen had a baby born at home while overseas.

Though Daugaard said he was not surprised the group was able to accomplish so much in a short time-span, the state, as a whole, worried.

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“We had great confidence in your abilities and we’re proud of all that you have prepared and all your abilities,” Daugaard said. “But we all had a bit of anxiety because … the world is a dangerous place. When you go to places like the places you went, there’s always that feeling.”

Noem added that the 155th is the first military group from South Dakota to deploy since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The unit now sits on a long list of South Dakota National Guard units with positive reputations across the country and around the world, Noem said.

“You’re the first ones in the state to step up and fight the war on terrorism. You went to war on our behalf,” Noem said. “Know from me and my family that we love you, we prayed for you and prayed that this day would come quickly. May God bless you and your families and God bless America.”

Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender reminisced on the send-off ceremony for the unit in August, describing families’ last minutes together before separating for months. He said the nerves, excitement and pride associated with the unit’s deployment and safe return are not just felt by military families and friends, but rather by everyone who lives on U.S. soil, though few can relate to the forfeiture of one’s family structure for the greater good of the country.

“We’re very aware … of the sacrifice that goes on during deployment and your presence and your duty to your country does not go unnoticed,” Allender said. “We may not envy you, but we admire you for your dedication to service, your willingness to put your life on hold. We can’t imagine what it would be like to be in your position.”

For Thune, it was an “honor” to be among the 155th, celebrating an occasion that was “less solemn” that the group’s departure. And he hopes the celebrations continue over the Fourth of July holiday.

Thune said Saturday’s event, and Independence Day, have similar, specific focuses.

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“It’s about family, it’s about this great country and expressing our appreciation of the soldiers and expressing our appreciation for those who make all of those other things possible,” Thune said. “We are so blessed to have you representing us and so grateful for your service.”

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