Tailor-made holiday welcome home for Missouri Guard aviation unit

Sgt. Kevin Schubert, of St. Louis, holds the 1107th Aviation Group's guidon next to Lt. Col. Thomas Burson, of Warrensburg, as the rest of the Missouri Guard unit files into position at the group's welcome home ceremony in Springfield. The aviation specialists returned to the Ozarks in time for the holidays following a year-long deployment to southwest Asia. (Photo by Ann Keyes, Missouri National Guard)

By Ann Keyes

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. - From start to finish, it was a tailor-made holiday welcome home for the Missouri National Guard's 1107th Aviation Group - that included Santa Claus.

The aviation specialists left Springfield in support of Overseas Contingency Operations almost eleven months ago in bitter-cold and sporadic snow. Following a year in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq, the Citizen-Soldiers returned home to winter, but this time, the massive crowd awaiting the group's return was warmed by sunny skies and the thought of being reunited with loved one for the holidays.

The large throng at the Springfield Expo center began to gather at least two hours before the scheduled ceremony, growing stronger until the significant hall was filled. Forty-five minutes before the 1 p.m. start, family and friends heard the busses filled with Soldiers were headed their way and rushed to the sidewalk in front of the expo to catch a glimpse.

Led by a Springfield police escort and dozens of Patriot Guard motorcycle riders, the busses pulled into view. Soldiers, in turn, viewed swaying flags and large placards proclaiming they were missed. The Soldiers, bolstered by cheers, exited the busses with hand-waves and broad smiles.

Not long after, the ceremony began with the Soldiers marching into the center as the Guard's 135th Army Band played Bravura.

"This is a big house and we've got a big crowd," said Maj. Gen. Stephen Danner, adjutant general of the Missouri Guard in an address to those at the ceremony.

Danner, raising his voice higher to be heard by an increasingly louder audience of 1,500, continued by saying, "We are blessed this Christmas season with the best gift we can have: the return of the 1107th. It's a welcome home for Christmas, and you can't get any better than that."

During formal remarks, dignitaries gave praise to the unit for repairing and returning to the military supply system more than 500 aviation components and for recovering nearly 200,000 more through the responsible retrograde program. The net result was $635 million in savings to the U.S. Army. The unit moved 462 helicopters through the aerial port of debarkation and modified 426 helicopters over 35,000 man-hours of aviation maintenance.

"Your mission was an indispensible part of the success of our nation's armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Your skills in repair, maintenance and modification of aircraft kept hundreds of our helicopters in the air with vital supplies and personnel. In fulfilling your mission you have protected innocent lives and made America and the world safer," said Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon through Danner.

"You have earned the respect and admiration of your fellow citizens and your community," said Missouri Sen. Kit Bond via letter. "Equally deserving are your families, who endured the long hours, the weeks and the months while you were away."

At least one family grew during the deployment when now two-month-old Viktor Orthman came into the world. Tiffany gave birth during the timeframe her husband was home on a brief leave.

"My husband got home in time to pick me up from the hospital," said Tiffany Orthman, wife of Staff Sgt. David Orthman, of Spokane, as she showed off their son.

Following the welcome home ceremony the Orthman's - including 4-year-old Thor, and Vinnie, 2 - were reunited for good as they headed out for Italian food. The Orthman's will celebrate the New Year as a family in Orlando, Fla. Tiffany said.

Indeed, all the Citizen-Soldiers with the 1107th would celebrate the holidays at home as all 150 who deployed came back safely, including five sets of fathers and sons who left with the group.

Sgt. Damian Payne, of Springfield, deployed with Sgt. 1st Class Richard Payne; Sgt. Zach Stumpff, of Mountain Grove, with Master Sgt. Greg Stumpff; Spc. Tyler Combs with Sgt. 1st Class Elva Combs, of Ozark; Spc. Chad Lawrence, of Willard, with Chief Warrant Officer 2 Richard Lawrence; and Staff Sgt. Shane Fisher, of Walnut Grove, with Chief Warrant Officer 5 John Fisher.

"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," said 1107th Commander William Thomas, of Rogersville. "When you have the same mechanical aptitude that your father has, if you gravitate toward fixing things and he helps mentor you, it makes sense. And that doesn't even take into consideration the patriotic piece of being in the service."

With the mission now behind them, many Soldiers with the group will return to fulltime jobs at the Guard's Aviation Classification Repair Activity Depot in Springfield where they will continue to fine-tune the helicopter maintenance skills that make them experts at everything from welding to electrical circuitry.

But not before first celebrating this special time of year with those who longed for their return.

"This is the best Christmas gift anyone could give me," said Nancy Mulliner, clearly overwhelmed with emotion over the return of her son, Sgt. Richard Mulliner, of Springfield.

"It's beyond words, really," said Orthman as he reunited with his wife and young sons. "I missed them so much."

Most eyes were focused eastward as supporters of the Missouri National Guard's 1107th Aviation Group watched for the unit's busses to pull onto St. Louis Street. Friends and family lined the sidewalk at the unit's welcome home ceremony in Springfield. (Photo by Ann Keyes, Missouri National Guard)

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