What a year, eh? The RiverTown newsroom looked back on 2020 to compile lists of the most important news and sports stories covered by the Star-Observer and Republican Eagle. Check back to Top 10 Stories of 2020 over the next few days to see what made the cut.

It was a stifling July afternoon in Johnson Fieldhouse on the University of Wisconsin-Stout campus.

Hundreds of family members and friends of the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry filled the gymnasium to the rafters. Their thunderous recital of the Pledge of Allegiance left no doubt about who they were there for and why.

As he looked out over the sea of camouflage before him, Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Aaron Freund addressed all the loved ones who would be just as much a part of this deployment to Afghanistan as the soldiers in his charge.

"Soldiers write the checks, but families pay the bills," Freund said. "For soldiers, they do not fight because they hate what is in front of them, they fight because of what they left behind."

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Three days later on July 17, 2019, more than 400 servicemen and women from Eau Claire, Menomonie, New Richmond, Rice Lake, Arcadia, Onalaska, River Falls and Abbotsford began deploying to Afghanistan and Ukraine.

Early that morning, cars and pickups began trickling into Wall Street Armory parking lot in New Richmond.

The warm morning sun bathed couples as they hugged. Tears paid tribute to the solemn sendoff. Far too soon hands holding released and embraces separated as two buses filled and slowly made their way down Knowles Avenue past the flags and waves and kisses of all the folks who got up early to send the soldiers off, one more time.

Then 285 days later, some of the 128th returned home.

Accompanied by a police escort, a bus filled with troops from the 128th Infantry returning from Afghanistan and Ukraine heads to a reunion in spring 2020 at the National Guard Armory in New Richmond. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia
Accompanied by a police escort, a bus filled with troops from the 128th Infantry returning from Afghanistan and Ukraine heads to a reunion in spring 2020 at the National Guard Armory in New Richmond. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia

Nearly 150 soldiers from the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry arrived Monday, April 27, 2020, to the cheers of 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 returned to a different community than the one they left, one rattled and rearranged by a pandemic spoiling for more.

Roughly three dozen more returned to Wisconsin June 6. Then 13 months after their sendoff ceremony, the remaining members of the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry Regiment safely returned on Aug. 14 after completing a security mission in Afghanistan, according to the Wisconsin Army National Guard's website.

Four local soldiers shared their thoughts on deployment, COVID-19 and coming home.

 It is a military maneuver known as the "aerial bear hug" being demonstrated here during the 128th Infantry's return home from Afghanistan in April 27, 2020. The pandemic complicated and limited the reunion, in contrast to the mass sendoff the previous summer. Tom Lindfors / Rivertown Multimedia
It is a military maneuver known as the "aerial bear hug" being demonstrated here during the 128th Infantry's return home from Afghanistan in April 27, 2020. The pandemic complicated and limited the reunion, in contrast to the mass sendoff the previous summer. Tom Lindfors / Rivertown Multimedia

“This was my second deployment. Both were very similar in our overall mission to help support and develop the local military and police forces. My first deployment was to Baghdad, Iraq, back in 2009 and I personally enjoyed that experience immensely. Being a 20-year-old kid, it was very eye-opening and humbling to see the struggles that the local people faced.” -- Sgt. Jamis Keding

“COVID did limit our access on post and our mission capabilities, but I would say the biggest impact it had was on our ability to go to the gym and sit down for a meal. You take away a grunt’s gym and they don’t cope well.” -- Specialist Jacob Simpson

“Returning to a pandemic was definitely a change from what I thought was going to be ‘normal’ back home. I couldn’t visit my family without isolating for two weeks.” -- Sgt. Wolfgang S.C. Ashton

“Living in a deployed environment for a year is eerily similar to the lockdowns and mandates that were in place when we returned. You are fairly isolated overseas and spend most of your downtime when not working by playing video games, working out, or completing college courses. The difficult part was not being able to see all your friends and family upon returning.” -- Keding

“I mostly missed spending time with family and friends, and the smell of cornfields.” -- Ashton

“Grass. I missed the smell of grass. You realize how much you take things for granted when you don’t have them over there.” -- Simpson

“The thing I looked forward to the most when coming home was probably seeing my friends and family again, also going kayaking down the Apple River, and being able to go hunting and ice fishing this year.” -- SPC Specialist Kollin Strey

“The thing I looked forward to the most coming home was seeing my 2-year-old son. My first deployment I was single with no real concerns back home while I was gone. Being away from my son for a year was very challenging, but it’s amazing to see how much a child changes in that short period of time.” -- Keding

More than nine months after deploying to Afghanistan and Ukraine, members of the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry began arriving home at the National Guard Armory in New Richmond in April 2020. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia
More than nine months after deploying to Afghanistan and Ukraine, members of the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry began arriving home at the National Guard Armory in New Richmond in April 2020. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia

Each thanked family, the community and fellow soldiers.

On that sweltering July afternoon, Lt. Col. Freund reminded all of us of what lies at the core of being a soldier, especially as a member of the Eagle Brigade: "We are always ready. When our nation asks, 'Who will go?' We continue to stand up and say, 'Send me. I will go.'”