About 150 local soldiers were reunited with loved ones after a yearlong overseas deployment on Tuesday, as members of the U.S. Army Active Reserve 317th Engineer Construction Company out of Homewood arrived at Homewood-Flossmoor High School.
In an event organized by the Army, the soldiers were bused to the south suburban location to rendezvous with family members, some of whom drove hours to reunite and retrieve their loved one.
According to Sgt. Grant Jacobsen, Army officials decided to vary from their normal homecoming procedure in which family members pick up their soldiers from an airport. They wanted to avoid a dense crowd of people waiting together in the airport arrivals terminal.
“Because of COVID, we wanted to find a place that was open and big enough for the soldiers and their families,” Jacobsen said.
Reservists in the 317th were in the Middle East for about a year before returning home. Though the company operates out of Homewood, its reporting soldiers are from a large regional area that includes Southern Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana.
After brief remarks by some of their commanding officers, the soldiers were dismissed. They retrieved massive duffel bags and made their way toward loved ones, embracing, smiling, crying and whooping in joy.
Kate Hensley, of Lafayette, Ind., was anxious to see her son, Parker. She waited in the car with Parker’s father, Karl Hensley, and his sister, Emma.
Now that he’s home, Parker will return to studying for a criminal justice degree at Ball State University. That’s what he was doing when he received news of being deployed. His mom said she had a mix of emotions when she heard Parker was leaving.
“I was apprehensive to say the least,” Hensley said.
Going through the holidays without Parker was especially difficult, Hensley said. Parker cooks the meal with his mom and “helps decide what goes on the table.”
Edgar Guevara, of Oswego, said he was excited to share a meal with Isadora “Izzy” Hernandez, whom he was there to pick up. Guevara said that his friend, who is “like a brother,” isn’t picky about food. They might even just swing by McDonald’s.
Guevara, who works in maintenance at Triton College in River Grove, said he missed working on home construction projects with Hernandez while he was deployed overseas.
“He got a house last year and I took a lot of time fixing up his house with him,” Guevara said.
The Gayton siblings couldn’t wait to surprise their mother by bringing home their brother, Julian. According to Luis, Jose and Alma, their mother was asleep at home in Aurora.
“She doesn’t even know he’s coming home today,” Luis said. “We’re going to surprise her and walk in with him.”
Most of the waiting family members said they anticipated their soldiers would be hungry upon arrival, and planned to take them for food.
Laura and Geno DiSanto, of Hobart, Ind., said their son, Anthony, would probably want ribs or Italian food — Portillo’s was a likely destination.
As they communicated with Anthony while he was deployed, the couple said their son complained about the heat and sand, and said he couldn’t wait to come home.
On the home front, Laura said having Anthony on the other side of the world only got harder the longer he was away.
“It was nice when we were able to text with him, but we were nine hours different in time, so it was tough to connect,” she said.
During the reunion at H-F High School, Kyle Healy connected with his daughter, Lyla, for the first time in person. His wife, Anna, gave birth only about three months prior, while Healy was still overseas.
“I’m pretty excited. We got to FaceTime a couple of times and I saw her, but seeing them in person is pretty great,” said Healy, smiling broadly.
Later, Healy, of Bloomingdale, Ill., caught up with a Chronicle reporter to add one more piece of information.
“You know, it’s not just me who’s meeting their child for the first time today,” Healy said. “There are six of us whose children were born while we were deployed, and we’re all meeting them in person for the first time today.”
Story and photos by Carole Sharwarko