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Note - Sentinel Editor W.S. Wilson was embedded with the Indiana National Guard 113th Engineer Battalion in Mosul, Iraq, in May and June. The unit returned to Indiana on two flights, Tuesday and Wednesday.

INDIANAPOLIS – Today, Indiana’s 113th Combat Engineer Battalion is back home again – in the arms of their friends, lovers and other strangers – after a year of eating dust, getting shot at and wondering if hell could be as hot as Mosul, Iraq.

Homecoming began for most of the 113th families with a long drive from northern Indiana and a long wait in a drafty Armory hall with impatient kids. It ended with ecstatic whoops that would fit right in at the state basketball title game.

The soldiers are the same, mostly. Many of them have seen things they won’t want to tell their families about for a long time, if ever. Most of them still seem impossibly young.

Judging from the smooches in the National Guard Armory near Indianapolis International Airport, most have some very good friends. Others were more reserved, as if they might be a little worried that their loved ones could have changed, too.

That said, only the frostiest heart could remain aloof at a reunion like this.

Maj. General Martin Umbarger shook the hand of each soldier as he or she stepped off the plane and then hustled over to the nearby armory and made brief remarks to the assembled families.

“I just want to look you in the eye and tell you how proud we are of your soldiers – our soldiers,” he told Tuesday’s crowd of family and friends. The general called Mosul, “one of the most dangerous places in Iraq” and said he was thankful they were all coming home.

The 113th sustained no fatalities in Iraq. “They were in harm’s way the whole time and I couldn’t be prouder of them,” he said.

Then the door went up and in marched the troops. A colonel quickly dismissed them and something like 200 soldiers and a larger number of moms, dads, wives, fiancees, little brothers, sons, daughters and all manner of friends threw themselves at each other. They pounced and hooted and cried and squeezed and squeezed.

There was Maj. Steve Hines, Indianapolis, with his adorable 7 1/2-year-old twin daughters, Abby and Kelly, bounding up his arms like he was a jungle gym and his wife, Susan, beaming.

Dora Gazaway, Trafalgar, who spent much of the year prostrate and bald fighting cancer, latched onto her husband, Chaplain James Gazaway, with such force that you wondered how either one of them could breathe.

He wasn’t complaining.

S.Sgt. Rene Delgadillo, Schererviller, wouldn’t let go of his two sons, aged 2 and 9, and they wouldn’t let go of him. His wife, Irma, was absolutely radiant.

“He’s going to get some real Puerto Rican food,” she said.

1st Lt. Elijah Gray was toting his 5-month-old son, whose birth he missed. The two were obviously hitting it off famously. Gray made his way through the thinning scrum of soldiers and clinging family to introduce himself to Margie Sharp. “Your son (Ashley) was my driver,” he said. “He is a great guy.”

It was quite a contrast from Mosul. They had survived a place where insurgents gladly blow up children so long as there is an American nearby, where walking the streets at night is tantamount to suicide, where hidden bombs kill by the score and maim more than they kill.

And where democracy is starting to show a pulse. Iraq is voting for a real parliament today, thanks in no small measure to these Hoosier neighbors of ours. Let there be no doubt that they did their share. Final figures aren’t available yet, but here are some recent totals:

• They bled. The 113th earned 29 Purple Hearts for battle wounds. There were 10 more pending as of mid-November.

• They showed they are made of tough stuff. Twenty-two members of the unit were honored with Bronze Stars for valor. Two more are pending. The 113th awarded 270 Combat Action Badges for close engagement with the enemy, and has 40 more in the works. Some 129 Army Commendation Medals were awarded and 48 are pending.

• They built. They fashioned the Ironman Line, a 70-kilometer berm around Mosul. It restricts insurgent entry into Iraq’s second largest city. They constructed or reinforced 25 combat outposts, 15 traffic control points, 16 police stations and 183 polling sites. This involved placing 8,175 big concrete barriers, many of them in a frenetic sprint just days after they arrived in Mosul, a few days before Iraq’s first election, a year ago.

• They protected bomb crews. The 113th made 739 trips off base to dispose of unexploded ordnance or dismantle booby-trap bombs.

Of course, there is no way to measure what their families went through back home.

Published Dec. 15, 2005