Aaron Ford stood at attention with 22 of his fellow soldiers as the last minutes of anticipation wore on. His focus was straight ahead. His eyes rested on one image.
In front of the steady formation, Ford’s wife, Kelli, stood with their two children. Five months earlier, Ford had witnessed the delivery of his son, Jake, via Skype. Kelli arranged delivery by Caesarian section so Aaron could plan to call at just the right moment.
As the soldiers finally broke formation, Ford rushed to his family and held his son for the first time.
Ford was one of four fathers who held their children for the first time at McClellan Soccer Complex on Monday.
After a year away and a 7,000-mile separation, the soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the 167th Infantry rode into McClellan Park, escorted by the Anniston and Oxford police and fire departments as well as the military-honoring motorcycle club, the Patriot Guard Riders. The waiting crowd cheered when the bus came into view, and whooped when the men filed out onto the field.
Members of the Jacksonville American Legion Post 57 had carefully lined the field walkway with 16 six-foot-tall American flags where officers, veterans and families welcomed their soldiers home.
Carl Hays, commander of Post 57, had no family returning home, but he was there if for no other reason than for support.
“We come out to every homecoming we can to recognize our soldiers and to support the families and people that put on these types of ceremonies,” Hays said.
The remaining 48 soldiers of the 1/167th either returned directly home or to the National Guard Armory in Valley. For the ceremony, Judy Shealy, a sister-in-law to one of the soldiers, sang the national anthem while the Jacksonville State University ROTC Honor Guard presented the colors.
Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson was among the audience. Amerson looked forward to welcoming home the entire battalion and recognizing the service they provided for the United States.
“If it weren’t for these folks willing to serve, our country wouldn’t be as successful as it is,” he said.
One family had another celebration of its own to anticipate later in the week.
“We have my daughter’s graduation in two days and he’s here for that. That was an answered prayer,” Teri Haney said. Her husband, Staff Sgt. Jeff Haney, has served about 10 years between active duty service and National Guard duty. “We’re just going to get back to a normal scene now.”
Megan Skidmore, whose husband, Mitchell, left four days after their daughter’s first birthday, has made it back in time for her second in June.
“I’m just so excited for him to see her,” she said. “Then I can cry.”
Matthew Byrd, a first lieutenant, spoke to the crowd right before he and the rest of the soldiers were dismissed.
“We have to acknowledge the sacrifices that these families, our families have made,” he said. “People thank us. But things don’t slow down here when we leave.”
Once reunited with his family, Jeff Haney described how it felt to be home with one word.
“Great,” he said.