After almost a year in the heart of Baghdad, for these 86 soldiers, the Greater Rockford Airport is their first taste back home in the nation they defended. The moment was especially sacred for the family of Janesville based soldier Erin Daley.
"She emailed me on Monday and she said, "Mom and dad, you're not going to believe it. We're going to have a layover in Rockford," and I said, "you've got to be kidding." Then I said, I'm going to do everything I can do to see her," mother Shirley Daley said.
The 25-year-old operating officer was the only soldier who met face to face with her family inside RFD's customs check. Meanwhile, the rest of the 497th soldiers were fed inside anxiously awaiting similar reunions in Washington.
"You can't relate it to anything for being over in a war zone for an entire year, where all you have is email contact, the occasional phone call. You can't relate it to anything," Erin Daley said.
Beyond Daley's family, more than a dozen supporters waved their flags to the 497th Company, soldiers they've never even met.
"Being a Vietnam veteran, the feeling of coming home, and knowing that there's people here to welcome you. It's so very important," Ron Cummings said.
"I wanted to come out and show the guys that we support them and we care about them and we're thinking about them, and I'd like knowing that someone's doing that for my son when he comes home," Carol Helsinski said.
Erin's mission with the 497th didn't come without setbacks. Two in her company were killed in combat, events she admits put today's homecoming into perspective.
"Hardest thing in my life is losing those two soldiers and that's the thing we have to remember. While my family is enjoying this, there are thousands of families that won't have any joy in our deployment," Daley said.
And after passing through Germany and Newfoundland en route to the United States, Daley is grateful and amazed her plane's pit stop landed so close to home.
"Of all the places, Rockford, I've never heard of military planes landing here before, so it's just a one in a million chance it worked out, we're lucky," Daley said.