For hundreds of families across Minnesota, Christmas Day will not be about the number of presents under the tree — it will be about having their soldiers back home.
Tears of joy were seen on the faces of the families and soldiers of the Cambridge-based 850th Horizontal Engineer “Renegades” Company during a Welcome Home ceremony Dec. 22 at Cambridge-Isanti High School.
Pfc. Charlie Fimon, of Otsego, got to hold his 2-month-old son, Charlie, for the first time upon reuniting with wife Jessica at the celebration.
“It’s amazing, good to be home,” Fimon said.
It also was the first time the family experienced a deployment.
“It was hard not having him there at Charlie’s birth,” Jessica said. “Now it’s time to surprise (other family members) at home.”
The 140 soldiers of the 850th HEC returned to Minnesota after an eight-month deployment to Afghanistan. The 850th HEC of the Minnesota National Guard is a horizontal construction company in the U.S. Army and headquartered in Cambridge, with the 682nd Engineer Battalion as their higher headquarters based in Willmar.
Aboard three commercial buses that were escorted by several siren-activated squad cars, the soldiers were greeted with patriotic signs along Highway 65 and in the city of Cambridge. When they arrived at the high school, fire crews from Cambridge, Rush City and Zimmerman hung a large American flag at the top of a few ladder trucks.
Members of the local Minnesota Patriot Guard chapter also presented its Honor Flag Line with American flags in hand. They opened doors for all of the soldiers’ families and guests who attended the celebration, and they were the first to shake hands with and give high-fives and yell “Welcome home,” “Merry Christmas” and “Thank you for your service” to the soldiers upon their arrival at the back of the high school.
Larry “Slick” Myslicki, ride captain for the region’s Minnesota Patriot Guard, said the nonprofit organization consists of volunteers — whether veterans or not — who answer calls to honor soldiers and families of veterans at deployment and welcome home gatherings, military funerals and other events. They help families of deployed soldiers in need, as well.
“We stand and show respect for the soldiers and their families,” Myslicki said. “It’s just an honor for us … to show the troops and their families our support and thanks.”
Once inside the school, deployed soldiers’ families found gift bags containing ornaments and other items, along with presents for their children. The gifts were provided by the Isanti County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon organization, and the bags were put together by the Company’s Family Readiness Group.
The latter consists of soldier spouses and parents, noted Family Readiness Group member Candi Lund, whose son, Spc. Christoffer Lund, is a 2009 graduate of CIHS.
Army Capt. Michael Thompson, commander of the 850th Horizontal Engineer Company, shed some light on what the soldiers accomplished in their deployment.
“Our soldiers hit the ground running when we arrived in Afghanistan,” he said. “One of our most notable achievements was the repair and improvement of an alternate supply route, which enabled us to divert convoys from a main supply route that routinely received enemy contact. The 850th executed this task with speed and precision despite the constant threat of enemy attacks.”
Thompson added, “I am extremely proud of these soldiers.”
In addition, the unit cleared mine fields, repaired various roads networks, improved drainage and flow control issues, deconstructed nonessential bases as well as built a resiliency center, a gym and multiple guard towers.
Soldiers from the 850th HEC represent 100 communities throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, with one soldier living as far away as Texas.
Six soldiers from Isanti who were deployed included Sgt. Thomas Gehrke, Sgt. Mitchell Perry, Spc. Davis Sjoberg and Sgt. Derek Zoerb; four from Cambridge included Spc. Alexander Kelley, Spc. Christoffer Lund and Spc. Kevin Nickel Jr.. There were also Pfc. Jesse Pearson, from Braham, and one soldier from Dalbo. (Not all the soldiers’ names are listed because some didn’t want to be named.)
The soldiers were commended for their service.
“Thank you for all your work,” said 1st Sgt. Jeffry Taylor. “You guys did a wonderful job during your deployment to Afghanistan. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of soldiers to take with me. Welcome home, and you are free to leave and head home to spend the holidays with your families.”
The unit appreciated the support it received while deployed.
“We would like to thank everyone who supported us during our deployment, especially Isanti County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, the Patriot Guard and our families,” Thompson said. “We felt your support and it made our mission over in Afghanistan that much easier.”
The average age of the deploying soldiers was 27 years old. The youngest soldier was 18 and the oldest was 55. This was the first deployment for 73 percent (110) of the 140 soldiers. Twenty-six percent (39) have previously deployed. For some, this was the second, third or fourth deployment.
Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer was moved to tears during the ceremony. Palmer was part of a large contingency of law enforcement that escorted the troops back into Cambridge.
“This is one of those days you’ll always remember,” Palmer said. “Your heart is so filled with gratitude. We’ve seen families crying, and babies reuniting with their parents. We have to always remember the thankfulness we feel right now and always offer our continued support for our troops.”