A ceremony celebrating the return of the 1140th Engineer Battalion's Charlie Company was held Tuesday afternoon in the Sikeston Field House. Over 1,500 family, friends and community members came out to show their appreciation.
Although Charlie Company is comprised of 116 members, about 90 were present Tuesday because some members were dropped off in the Joplin and Springfield areas, according to Capt. Scot Ratcliff, Charlie Company commander.
Some soldiers were signing autographs at the request of youngsters. And the day was even proclaimed "Charlie Company Day" in Sikeston by Mayor Mike Marshall.
"Every one of you are true American heroes and your town is very proud of you," Marshall told the soldiers. "Our fine town and people in the town are very proud of the service you've done for our country and we appreciate the honor that you show our country."
Charlie Company members also witnessed their 1st Sgt. Dan Armour receive the bronze de Fleury Medal. Armour was selected as recipient for his inspirational leadership in the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. Col. John Akers said.
The returning soldiers mobilized in January 2004 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. On Tuesday 1140th soldiers also returned to armories in Farmington, Perryville, Cape Girardeau, Kansas City, Joplin and Columbia.
During the 11 months overseas, the battalion accomplished more than 450 missions including traveling more than 1 million miles across Iraq, training more than 800 Iraqi Civil Defense Corps personnel and paving more than 70 kilometers of a main supply route in Iraq.
Major Edward Gargas of the 1140th's headquarters in Cape Girardeau said the battalion assisted with the demolition of over 23 million pounds of captured ammunition.
Gargas noted two significant incidents headed by Charlie Company members during their deployment.
The first, Operation Firecracker, came on July 4 in southern Iraq when Charlie Company members headed a joint operation with the Iraqi Highway Patrol, members of the Air Force and other organizations in the search of a local sheik.
"This resulted in the capture of 47 weapons, tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, but most importantly it showed that now the democracy is the law," Gargas said. "The tribal leaders are not above that law and the patrol now has the upper edge in controlling law and order in Southern Iraq."
The other incident involved paving the main supply route, which was approximately 70 miles of gravel road that often caused equipment and vehicle breakdowns and cargo being lost or looted, Gargas said.
"They now have a continuously paved road between Iraq and Baghdad which has resulted in saving millions of dollars in cargo designated for various groups of coalition forces as well as saving millions of dollars in vehicle repairs," Gargas said.
A special video presentation of photos from Charlie Company's mission were displayed as the songs "Have You Forgotten" by Darryl Worley and "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" by Toby Keith played in the background.
Denise Ratcliff, wife of Charlie Company commander, Capt. Scot Ratcliff, and Sondra Armour, wife of 1st Sgt. Dan Armour, were acknowledged for their support during the ceremony.
Michael Jensen, co-chair of the ceremony, recalled the efforts of the family/
community organization Coalition Charlie Company and recognized several organizations and individuals for their support over the past year.
"Our goal was to show these brave members of Charlie Company just how proud we are of their service and just how much we missed them. And I think the crowd this morning in the chill and this afternoon should illustrate what this region thinks of this company," Jensen said.
Early Tuesday area residents and their vehicles lined East Malone Avenue and the route to the Sikeston Armory, greeting the soldiers as they returned home around 7 a.m.
Billie Bridger came out at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday to stand by the "Welcome to Sikeston" sign with an American flag as members of the 1140th Engineer Battalion's Charlie Company returned home. Bridger doesn't have any family in the 1140th, but her daughter is serving in the Marines.
"I just wanted to come out and show my support," said the Sikeston resident. "I know they would do the same for me."
Amanda Jeane recalled seeing her fiance, Sgt. Brent Armour, early Tuesday.
"I've never had a hug feel so good," Jeane said. "It's been a hard year for both us, and today is an answer to our prayers."
The couple became engaged in December 2003 -- one month before the soldiers were deployed - and now they're planning a wedding for the later this year.
"It's been an emotional day," agreed Lorie Howard, wife of Sgt. Robert Howard.
Howard recalled the most emotional part of the day for her husband -- when they went to Wal-Mart during some lull time.
"When we went to Wal-Mart, people that were there would stop and thank him and to see him be emotional when he saw the reaction of others surprised me," Howard said.
Although the couple is from Stella, which is in southwest Missouri, they said they were grateful for the Sikeston community's support.
"I'm amazed by the warmth and reception we've received from the community. People were standing out in the cold," Robert Howard said in disbelief.
Howard admitted it was difficult saying bye to his friends.
"You live with these guys and share jokes, the same bed and food for a year -- and you miss them," Howard said, adding at the same time, they all exchanged contact information.
Ratcliff also admitted Tuesday's community support was unbelievable.
"Coming into town and seeing everybody lined up -- It was outstanding," Ratcliff recalled. "But the support from the community from day one to the time of mobilization has been phenomenal and the whole way there, too. Everyone has been a huge morale booster."
Over the next few days Ratcliff said he plans to spend time with his wife and their four young children.
Charlie Company's commander observed: "It's just great to be home."