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Soldiers Being Welcomed Home in Coralville

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CORALVILLE, Iowa - A year ago, they were tears of sadness. Monday, they were happiness. Both times, they came out of love.

Spc. Andrew Anderson on Monday hugged his son, Jackson, tight, his eyes red with tears.

"Daddy! Daddy!" Jackson, who turns 4 in August, had been yelling seconds earlier from atop his grandpa's shoulders, trying to get his father's attention among a crowd of some 1,000 people.

About 110 Iowa Army National Guard soldiers had just been dismissed following a homecoming ceremony at the Coralville Marriott Hotel & Conference Center. Most of them were members of Company B of 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division.

They are among about 2,900 members of the division who reported to Camp Shelby in Mississippi last August and arrived in Afghanistan that November.

It was the largest single deployment of Iowa National Guard troops since World War II, according to the guard. The homecoming ceremonies started last week and will continue as soldiers are prepared for their return and allowed to decompress at Fort McCoy, Wis.

Last summer, Andrew Anderson, now 23 years old, became emotional as he hugged his son goodbye. He had seen him since then, including at home in Springville during a two-week leave in February, but then it was back to war.

And it was back to life without Daddy for Jackson and his mom and Anderson's fiancée, Katey Anderson, 23. Jackson took to calling his daycare "Afghanistan."

"He wants to be just like his daddy," Katey said. "So I hear about him climbing mountains every day."

Now that his dad's home, Jackson wants to go to Adventureland, cook spaghetti (his mom doesn't like it, he reported) and make tents in the living room.

"Every day we'll make a tent," he said.

Those plans had to wait for the conclusion of the brief ceremony. Retired Major Gen. Robert Sentman of Tiffin joked that he had told a soldier to lock and load one round in case any of the speakers got "windy." None did.

When they were dismissed, the soldiers, who'd been standing at attention in the middle aisle between the crowd, searched for family and friends.

Jackson was dressed in red, white and blue with a "Daddy's my hero" shirt and fake tattoos of stars and fireworks on his cheeks and arms. He held a "Welcome Home Daddy" sign, having colored in the "Daddy" himself with blue.

Katey walked on chairs toward the soldiers. She wanted to be the first to see Andrew. And she was, holding him close but saying she was too in shock to cry. They're getting married this October, and she believes the past year has made their love stronger.

"We've gone through so much as a couple," she said.

Jackson got his hugs and kisses too, and his father's military hat, which he put on his head.

"A release" was the best way Andrew could describe knowing the fighting was over and seeing about a dozen family members and friends.

"You see them, you see your little boy. It's a feeling you can't explain," he said.

As his father talked, Jackson said, "Watch me," and jumped as high as he could.

They'll be separated again soon, however. Andrew goes to Nebraska on Wednesday until mid-August for training to become a sergeant, Katey said.

"But we're lucky enough just to have him come home," she said.

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