Friends and family of more than 150 Louisiana National Guardsmen returning from Kuwait started arriving at a hangar near Metro airport early Monday morning, in a frosty 30 degrees.
Indoors, there was hot chocolate, coffee and folding chairs, but mostly just anticipation.
The plane had been scheduled to arrive at close to 9 a.m., but had been delayed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, so the plane could be de-iced.
As the clock ticked past nine, families walked, sat and sometimes went to peer through the hangar windows at the wide expanse of empty runway.
“I can’t wait to hug him, but I’m going to have to take a number,” said Susan Bourgeois, of Gonzales, whose grandson Sgt. Nicholas Gautreau, 24, was returning from his first deployment, with numerous relatives there to greet him.
Gautreau’s uncle, James Reed Gautreau, 42, is part of the same battalion as Nicholas Gautreau and had been deployed at the same time; the uncle and nephew had been in the same barracks in Kuwait.
The men are members of the 922nd Engineer Company, based out of Gonzales, which just completed a yearlong deployment to Kuwait.
In Kuwait, the soldiers maintained lines of communication, upgraded the Patton Army airfield and did new construction, working on approximately $3.1 million worth of projects, said Staff Sgt. Denis Ricou, of the Louisiana National public affairs office.
At one point in November, the 922nd Engineer Company provided a disaster relief response to a U.S. Army camp, Camp Arifjan, after it was flooded by a deluge of rain, Ricou said.
It wasn’t a highly unusual situation for the Louisiana-based Guardsmen, he said.
The last time Sgt. Shelby Horne, 22, had seen his daughter, Braylee Horne, she was 8 days old.
Now, Braylee is 10 months old, said her mother, Breanne Breland, of Baton Rouge, who was waiting with her family Monday morning for the Guardsmen to return.
“She’s about to walk,” Breland said of their daughter. “She’s waiting for him to come home.”
Rachel Hotard, of Port Allen, held a poster brightly lettered for her boyfriend, Sgt. John Smicker: “Here I am just like I said,” it read in part.
She said the couple plans to visit family this week.
“And sushi! That’s all he’s been talking about, that’s what he wants,” Hotard said.
At a little after 10 a.m. — the morning had warmed up by then — it was announced the soldiers’ plane was near, and the families went outside to wait.
A cheer went up when the plane appeared in the cloudless blue sky to their right, landed on the runway and traveled away from them, before slowly turning back toward the crowd and stopping many yards away, its nose facing them.
Another cry went up when stairs were rolled to the plane’s door and, then, the soldiers walked out, single file in their fatigues, backpacks on, to delighted cheers.
Hotard, near the back of the crowd, held her sign down, as she intently watched the soldiers head toward their families.
Then she saw Smicker and her arms and the poster shot up in the air.
“I see him! I see him!” she said.
After the homecoming, another couple, Selina Bush and her husband, Sgt. Ríchard Bush, drove to their daughters’ school, Ascension Christian Elementary in Gonzales, to surprise them.
Teachers had gathered students, among them the Bushs’ 5-year-old daughter Lailah and 2-year-old daughter Leah, into a classroom to sing Christmas songs.
When Sgt. Bush walked into the room, Lailah shouted, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” and ran to hug him around his neck.