Smiling faces beamed from the backs of pickup trucks, broadcasting the joy of soldiers thrilled to be back home after 15 months spent in a foreign land.
The 727th Transportation Company (Palletized Load System) returned to the communities it is based out of Friday with a parade and ceremony in Brookings befitting those who had given of their time and interrupted their lives to serve their country.
The 727th was the first South Dakota unit deployed to the Middle East, going from freezing January temperatures to the scalding heat of Kuwait in a short matter of time.
The parade worked its way down Sixth Street, ending up at the Swiftel Center. The soldiers rode in over 100 pickups, often filled with family members ecstatic to have their spouses, parents or siblings safe on American soil.
Spectators lined the street, cheering the 727th on.
“I think it’s great. … I’d like to see them all back (though). I’d like to see it done with,” said Gaylord Woods, a veteran of the Vietnam War.
Woods said that when he returned from Vietnam, few turned out to welcome him. He said he was happy to see many people had turned out for the 727th.
Royal and Ilsa Grindeland stood beneath giant American flags that billowed in the wind.
“We’re proud to be Americans. We’re proud to support our troops. We’re proud to wave the flag,” Ilsa Grindeland said.
At the Swiftel Center, the soldiers seemed to smile endlessly, embracing family members and sitting patiently through many speakers.
Warrin Ludemand, the mayor of Flandreau, said that the 727th was uniquely fortunate.
“We are fortunate,” he said. “Look around. There’s not an empty seat never to be filled. You are all back.”
Ludemand and others asked the soldiers to enjoy their time with their loved ones, but also to return to the lives and jobs they had left behind.
Mayor Scott Munsterman of Brookings said he hoped the future would be bright for the members of the 727th.
“I pray that God will honor your sacrifices and just bless you richly,” he said.
The prevailing mood was one of happiness.
“On the 18th of January last year, I saw a lot of tears of concern and apprehension,” said Adjunctant Major General Michael A. Gorman. “Today, I see tears of joy.”
Gorman pointed out some of the awards members of the 727th won, including six Navy Achievement Medals, nine bronze stars and 20 Army commendations. Only three members sustained serious injury when they were accidentally run over.
Gorman also cautioned the soldiers to be cautious and to ask for help if they needed to after their return.
“Remember that you’ve all been through things that have changed you,” he said.
Governor Michael Rounds spoke next to last, saying that the soldiers of the 727th had answered the call issued on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Because of that change (to our country), men and women were called to serve and defend the freedoms we had taken for granted,” Rounds said.
Other speakers at the event included Mayor Brenda Barger of Watertown, Mayor Elizabeth Trobaugh of Elk Point, Don Kelpin, Karen Bekaert of Family Support, SDSU President Peggy Gordon Miller. and 727th Captain Bob DeJong. The SDSU concert choir performed the national anthem.