RICHMOND — The fluttering, oversized flags held by the members of the Patriot Guard told them they were safe. The little star-spangled balloons that were held by little hands told them they were home.
Hundreds of people, including Gov. Steve Beshear, filled the First Baptist Church in Richmond to hail the 151 returning heroes of the 2123rd Transportation Co., fresh off the bus, fresh out of Afghanistan.
The overriding emotion was joy in the crowded parking lot. But the range was easily seen in a small group of people near the entrance to the church: A little girl in brand-new red cowboy boots and a gold princess crown, a baby with a Nice To Meet You shirt on, a woman in a black-and-white cocktail dress, and an elderly man in tears.
Staff Sgt. Klinton Burke's 8-month-old daughter, Rylea Ann, was trying to find something good in his cap. Daddy offered his sunglasses, but she wanted a toy, a banana or something better. Daddy and Rylea smiled and grabbed and played.
The last time he had seen her was three days before she turned one month old. He has talked to her and his wife, Jamie, "every morning and every night," he says, "so I've missed nothing."
"Except dirty diapers," Jamie said. "But don't worry. We'll have some for you when we get home."
This was Burke's third deployment but the first since he has had a wife and a baby to worry about back home.
"It's 180 degrees different," Burke said. "I came home for something this time. I'm sustained by my faith and them when I'm there; it's easier to do my job because it is for them."
The job they did was not easy. A cargo transport unit, the Kentucky National Guard company provided armed escort for more than 150 convoys and traveled "more than 600,000 miles of the most dangerous roads on the planet," according to unit Capt. John Moore. The company delivered 9,000 pieces of equipment, valued at more than $1 billion. It engaged the enemy 41 times. Its members earned 18 Purple Hearts, with seven more pending, and 80 Combat Action badges. Five members of the company had to be evacuated out.
The families know this. Sherry Lyons of Nelson County sat in a church pew with what looked like a brigade of a family. Everyone was wearing shirts that read: "The Good Lord Brought Him Home to His Family."
Since 2006, she has seen two sons, one son-in-law and a daughter-in-law enlist in the Army National Guard. Son Andrew is the last to come home.
She says it's been hard.
"You talk to your friends. You keep your family close. You just pray all the time. You don't keep it bottled up," Lyons said, "because it's always there."
Of course, she knows that he could re-enlist. They have not discussed it.
First things first, the family — that's his wife, his sister, three nephews, a niece, his parents and his parents-in-law — planned to get him fed and get him home.
On Saturday, he's promised to be at another nephew's basketball game.
All of the reunions, although initially joyful, do not carry errands of unmitigated cheer. First Lt. Nelson Anglin held his beautiful baby niece while his family looked on. He explained that he looked forward to stepping into his own shower Friday night and sleeping in his own bed. But first, he said, they would all go visit his daughter's grave site. Campbell Brielle Anglin died in September 2009, after being born 12 weeks early and having lived only a few days.
It is a grief he carried with him a long way.