Wisconsin National Guard soldiers head to the New Richmond Armory on Monday, April 28, 2020. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia
Wisconsin National Guard soldiers head to the New Richmond Armory on Monday, April 28, 2020. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia

NEW RICHMOND -- Two hundred eighty-five days after they deployed for Afghanistan and Ukraine, nearly 150 soldiers from the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry returned home Monday, April 27, 2020, to the cheers and embraces of friends and loved ones.

A convoy of police and fire department vehicles, lights flashing and sirens blaring, announced the arrival of the bus carrying the soldiers, escorting them to the armory. They return to a different community than the one they left, one rattled and rearranged by a pandemic spoiling for more.

These were hugs, tears of joy and relief for those who returned from Operation Freedom Sentinel.  Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia
These were hugs, tears of joy and relief for those who returned from Operation Freedom Sentinel. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia

It was a very different feeling Monday afternoon than on that early morning last July when hundreds of people gathered as these same troops boarded a bus destined for Fort Hood and then transport on to Afghanistan, Operation Freedom Sentinel and harm’s way. There could be no crowd this time due to COVID-10. This time there was just immediate family, and theirs were tears of joy and relief for the parents, children and spouses who returned home safely.

 Brooke Thaemert welcomes back her soldier Dakota Baxter at the armory Monday afternoon in New Richmond.  Baxter is with the Wisconsin Army National Guard 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, which returned home early after serving in Operation Freedom Sentinel in Afghanistan. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia
Brooke Thaemert welcomes back her soldier Dakota Baxter at the armory Monday afternoon in New Richmond. Baxter is with the Wisconsin Army National Guard 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, which returned home early after serving in Operation Freedom Sentinel in Afghanistan. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia

According to the Wisconsin National Guard, this contingent is part of a larger drawdown of troops in Afghanistan announced earlier this year. The soldiers landed at Fort Hood, Texas earlier this month where they completed post-mobilization requirements before heading home to Eau Claire, Abbotsford, Menomonie, New Richmond, Rice Lake, Arcadia, Onalaska and River Falls.

Instead of the grand welcome home envisioned last summer, Red Arrow soldiers made due Monday, April 27, 2020, with family. Large public gathering are prohibited during the coronavirus pandemic. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia
Instead of the grand welcome home envisioned last summer, Red Arrow soldiers made due Monday, April 27, 2020, with family. Large public gathering are prohibited during the coronavirus pandemic. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia

Some 250 of the original 400 Red Arrow soldiers remain in Afghanistan in support of the Army’s 3rd Security Force Assistance Brigade and are expected to return at the end of the battalion’s scheduled yearlong deployment in mid-summer.