Hugs and happy reunions

Greeting her daughter
St. Paul Park resident Lisa Leisher hugs her daughter, Nichole, who arrived back in Minnesota Monday. "We can be complete again," Leisher said.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

In Bloomington Monday, 52 members of the National Guard were reunited with family and friends. Like the other welcome home gatherings across the state, this one consisted of two parts.

Part 1 is the anticipation.

1st Lt. Andrew Shanley
1st Lt. Andrew Shanley is greeted by his parents, Cindy and Tim Shanley. Shanley is also a St. Paul police officer.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

"We can't wait. We're just so anxious and excited," said Cindy and Tim Shanley, as they waited for their son, 1st Lt. Andrew Shanley.

He's one of more than 700 members of the 34th Infantry Division, known as the Red Bulls. Cindy Shanley is carrying a red hankerchief with the Red Bull insignia. She says the long deployment has been made bearable by the easy access to e-mail and phone calls. Shanley says she got a call from her son weekly.

"And if I didn't get that phone call once a week I'd freak. So then I'd get on the Internet and I'd go, 'Why aren't you e-mailing me?' And then I'd say, 'Where's my phone call?'"

The Shanleys say they'll have a family dinner tonight to welcome Andrew home. But Cindy says that's as far as the planning has gotten so far.

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"I know that he wants to visit his fiance in Vermont. When that is, I don't know," said Cindy Shanley. "She's in the military, she's a first lieutenant. So he wants to make a trip there and bring her back here. We're waiting until tonight when all the family's there and he can kind of tell us his plans."

Staff Sgt. Veronica Garcia
Staff Sgt. Veronica Garcia and her mother are all smiles at the Bloomington armory Monday morning.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

The bus is supposed to arrive at noon, but is running late. Guard parent Donna Mathias gets a phone call from her daughter, Carrie, who is on the bus.

"The bus just crossed into Minnesota? OK, we're here," Mathias said to her daughter. "We'll see you really, really soo, honey."

While Donna Mathias wipes away tears, her husband Jack remains stoic. Jack has the countenance and haircut of a retired serviceman. He served in the Navy in the 1960s and spent time in Vietnam.

Jack Mathias says his return from service was a lot different from this celebration.

"There was no reception. In fact, they kind of hid it. People didn't like you in uniform. [They] kind of looked down on you," said Mattias, saying that the experience of welcoming his son home is absolutely wonderful.

As the bus finally rolls into the parking lot, the crowd moves in an orderly fashion to greet the returning soldiers.

Get off the bus
Members of Charlie Company were overjoyed to be home as they got off a bus which brought them from Fort McCoy, Wisconsin to the armory in Cottage Grove, Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

They crane their necks to see as the Guardsmen and women are subjected to some last-minute formalities outside the bus. And then they are released from duty and into the waiting arms of their loved ones.

Through the tangle of hugging familes, Andrew Shanley is not hard to spot. He's 6 feet 4 inches, and he's standing next to his folks.

Shanley, who is a St. Paul police officer, says he's looking forward to getting back to the job -- after about a month off. He says his training as a cop helped him in Iraq.

"The way you deal with stress, and deal with situations, and deal with people and leaders and subordinates and superiors," said Shanley. "The biggest thing I've learned or taken from being a police officer is how to deal with people."

Staff Sgt. Veronica Garcia -- still wearing her camel colored combat boots -- is looking enviously at the pedicured toes of her mother and girlfriends. Garcia is from Moorhead. She's single and recently celebrated her 30th birthday in Iraq.

A hug from mom
Sgt. Nichole Leisher, left, gets a hug from her mother Lisa, as she arrived at the Cottage Grove armory Monday afternoon.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

When asked what she's looking forward to doing now that she's back home, Garcia said, "Going to eat. Going shopping. Getting back into the real world. Most definitely, I'm looking forward to that."

Garcia says now that her military service is done, she wants to focus on a career in public relations. Even though the unpredictable nature of the war in Iraq has meant extended tours and shortened furloughs for many soldiers, Garcia says her service is really over.

"My contract ended a year and a half ago. And luckily there's enough soldiers that volunteer to go, that unless there's a draft, I'm done. I did my part."

In another metro area community this morning, the word for one mother was "anxious."

Lisa Leisher said that's how she feels, waiting to see a bus turn down the flag-lined street leading to the Cottage Grove amory. The bus is carrying Sgt. Nichole Leisher, known to her mother as "Coley," and who hasn't been on Minnesota soil in more than seven months.

Leisher and niece
Nichole Leisher greets her 11-month-old niece, Lacia.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Lisa Leisher says she can't talk about her daughter without tearing up.

"Because our family can be whole again," said Leisher. "She can spend time with her niece. Our family can be complete again."

Leisher got so she couldn't bear to say goodbye to her daughter at the end of a rare break from combat duty in Tallil, Iraq. She hasn't seen Coley since December.

"we're going to spend the rest of the day together before everybody goes back to work tomorrow. Can't wait."

Neither can Coley's friends, Crystal Johnson and Jen Nordin, who took time off of work to welcome their friend back to the U.S. They were separated by thousands of miles and a war, but managed to stay in touch.

Nordin says for her birthday recently, Coley sent a homemade coupon book, filled with promises Nordin cherishes.

Charlie Company
Charlie Company in formation for a brief time Monday, before members reunite with their families and friends at the Cottage Grove armory.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

"It had the funniest little things in it, like 'one free butt pinch. One free beer.' It was probably the best birthday present, ever. I wasn't expecting it," said Nordin.

When the buses finally arrived, civilians lined the path between the buses and a parking lot staging area where the 76 Minnesota National Guard members, known as Charlie Company, would assemble one last time before the long anticipated reunions with loved ones.

This day has been a destination since Charlie Company, a medical support battalion, shipped out almost two years ago.

C Company, 134th Brigade Support Battalion is primarily a medical unit, but also provided convoy security and ran patrol operations out of Camp Adder south of Baghdad.

Maj. Christine Ostendorf says most of the personnel here will get some deserved time off.

Greeting a soldier
A woman greets her "hero" at the Cottage Grove National Guard armory Monday, as some 80 soldiers from C Company arrived home after their deployment to Iraq.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

"All of them have what we call terminal leave -- some vacation on the back end, if you will. Several weeks in most cases," said Ostendorf. "So they'll go home and start that reintegration process with their families and their friends, and close people in their lives, and start working on going back to jobs and just getting back to normal civilian life -- whatever that looks like now."

Coley Leisher eventually found her way through the crowd for an emotional embrace with her mother, sister and friends for the first time since December.

The few words she could muster don't seem to adequately describe the relief and joy her face conveyed to her family.

"It's fantastic. I'm just really glad to be home," said Leisher.

Leisher's stint with the National Guard doesn't end here. She's enlisted until 2009, and doesn't count out the possibility of another deployment to Iraq before then.