Staff. Sgt. John McLean was still a few blocks away from his Lawrence home Thursday afternoon when he saw American flags, red, white and blue streamers and the "welcome home" signs.
"It was really incredible," McLean said. "It really shows how the neighbors support their own neighbor, plus what's going on over there."
After more than a year of patrolling the dangerous streets in the suburbs of Baghdad, McLean had finally returned to the safe environs of his old neighborhood on Riverside Drive in northern Lawrence.
McLean's day began at 12:30 a.m. at Fort McCoy, Wis., where he and more than 450 other members of the 1st Kansas National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 137th Infantry, boarded buses for the long drive to Topeka. They had spent the past week getting physicals, being debriefed and completing paperwork before heading home.
Shortly after 2 p.m., they marched into the Kansas Expocentre to a rousing standing ovation from an estimated crowd of 3,000 people.
McLean's wife, Raquel, was in that crowd, waiting to see her husband for the first time in about 14 months.
"It's been a roller coaster," Raquel McLean said, describing her emotions. "The waiting, anticipating and then waiting again."
She had plenty of company. More than an hour before the troops returned home, Lawrence resident George O'Brien Sr. leaned against his car in the Expocentre parking lot and waited to be reunited with his son, George O'Brien Jr.
"He wants to have three or four days by himself," O'Brien said of his son. "He wants to get out on his motorcycle. He bought a new Harley just before he left."
The elder O'Brien, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, summed up the past year in one word.
"Worry," he said. "That's about the best way to describe it."
Throughout the parking lot, families from throughout Kansas arrived in vehicles bearing flags and signs that said "My Son is Home" and "Welcome Home Heroes."
Outside the Expocentre's main entrance, Larry Beam and his wife, Bev, of Topeka, eagerly awaited the return of their son, Jeff Beam, of Lawrence.
"It seems like it has been forever getting here," Bev Beam said of the reunion.
Larry Beam, an Army veteran of Vietnam, said he was happy to see such a large crowd show up for the welcoming.
"We didn't have anything like this when I returned home," he said.
The 2nd Battalion is made up of Company A based in Lawrence and other units based in Kansas City, Kan., and Wichita. Their duties in Iraq included operating the Joint Visitor's Bureau in Baghdad and providing security for many high-level visitors to Iraq. They also were responsible for patrols around Baghdad.
One soldier in the battalion, Company A's Spec. Jessie Davila, of Greensburg, was killed in February by a car bomb.
Also waiting to welcome the guardsmen were Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, the guard's adjutant general, and other state senior Guard commanders. Their speeches were short.
"I just want to say welcome home," Sebelius said to the troops and their commander, Lt. Col. James Trafton. She also commended the guardsmen for their handling of a "very dangerous" mission in Iraq.
Trafton said he was proud of his unit.
"As I look back over the past 15 months, I'm amazed at what they accomplished," he said, noting that the troops had seen their duties increase as they took over responsibilities of other battalions when they left and weren't replaced.
Trafton called on his soldiers to remain safe now that they were home.
"Just because you made it through combat in Iraq, you are not indestructible," he said.
Before dismissing the troops to their families, Bunting also commended them.
"No unit has ever served with more distinction than the 1st Kansas," he said.
Upon dismissal, families swarmed onto the Expocentre's floor searching for their loved ones.
Sgt. Matthew Davids, of Lawrence, held his little niece, Madeline Davids, while standing by his sister, Heather Davids, of Kansas City, Mo.
"I didn't think it would be anything like this," a smiling Matthew Davids said of the welcoming throng.
Heather Davids said she had no problem spotting her brother as he marched in.
"I think it's just awesome," she said. "I just got welled up with emotion. I couldn't wait to make contact with him."
A short distance away, Spec. E-4 Titus Stanley, of Kansas City, Kan., described the feeling of coming home as "heart-stopping."
"It was really emotional," said Stanley, a member of Lawrence's A Company. "You feel like a rock star coming in here. All the people are so supportive. I'm real happy to be back with my family."
Titus said he intended to give the Combat Infantry Badge he received in Iraq to his young nephew, Jessie Stanley.
"Jessie prayed for me every Sunday while I was over there. I feel like God kept me safe through his prayer," Titus Stanley said.
Also greeting Stanley was his mother, Billie Stanley, of Kansas City, Kan.
"He's a brave young man," she said of her son. "I'm just glad he's home safe and proud that he served his country."
In John McLean's Lawrence neighborhood, preparations began a few days earlier for his return. Neighbors Scott and Cammie Braden's children, Drew, 16, and Jamie, 11, began distributing fliers encouraging neighbors to put out flags or put up welcome signs as a way of saying "thanks" to McLean for his service.
"It was a community effort," Cammie Braden said.
By Thursday evening McLean, who as a civilian works as a respiratory therapist at University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kan., and Raquel, their three children and other family and friends prepared to enjoy a steak dinner.
"It's been a long, hectic day," John McLean said.
Hy-Vee stores in Lawrence will serve free breakfasts for military veterans Saturday morning in honor of Veterans Day. Breakfast buffets featuring pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, hashbrowns, fresh fruit, pastries, biscuits and gravy - and, of course, coffee - will be served from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. at both Hy-Vee stores in town, 3504 Clinton Parkway and 4000 W. Sixth St. The complimentary meals are available for all military personnel, including retirees, those on active duty or otherwise serving or having previously served in the National Guard or reserves. To receive the free food, just show a military ID to the cashier. "It's our way of saying thanks to those who serve our country," said Kevin Green, manager of store operations at Hy-Vee on Sixth Street. This is the fourth year of the appreciation program, Green said, and the first to feature buffets.