A Christmas homecoming (with slideshow)

Cambridge-based 850th HEC reunites with families after eight-month deployment (see photo slideshow below)

by Rachel Kytonen and Jon Tatting

Jennifer Saline and her daughter Layla, of  North Branch, brought plenty  of enthusiasm  and welcome home signs for husband and  father, Sgt.  Terry Saline, at Sunday’s  celebration. Photo by Jon Tatting
Jennifer Saline and her daughter Layla, of North Branch, brought plenty of enthusiasm and welcome home signs for husband and father, Sgt. Terry Saline, at Sunday’s celebration. Photos by Jon Tatting

For hundreds of families across Minnesota, Christmas Day will not be about the number of presents under the tree — it will be about having their soldiers back home.

Tears of joy were seen on the faces of the families and soldiers of the Cambridge-based 850th Horizontal Engineer “Renegades” Company during a Welcome Home ceremony Dec. 22 at Cambridge-Isanti High School.

Pfc. Charlie Fimon, of Otsego, got to hold his 2-month-old son, Charlie, for the first time upon reuniting with wife Jessica at the celebration.

“It’s amazing, good to be home,” Fimon said.

It also was the first time the family experienced a deployment.

“It was hard not having him there at Charlie’s birth,” Jessica said. “Now it’s time to surprise (other family members) at home.”

The 140 soldiers of the 850th HEC returned to Minnesota after an eight-month deployment to Afghanistan. The 850th HEC of the Minnesota National Guard is a horizontal construction company in the U.S. Army and headquartered in Cambridge, with the 682nd Engineer Battalion as their higher headquarters based in Willmar.

Aboard three commercial buses that were escorted by several siren-activated squad cars, the soldiers were greeted with patriotic signs along Highway 65 and in the city of Cambridge. When they arrived at the high school, fire crews from Cambridge, Rush City and Zimmerman hung a large American flag at the top of a few ladder trucks.

Members of the local Minnesota Patriot Guard chapter also presented its Honor Flag Line with American flags in hand. They opened doors for all of the soldiers’ families and guests who attended the celebration, and they were the first to shake hands with and give high-fives and yell “Welcome home,” “Merry Christmas” and “Thank you for your service” to the soldiers upon their arrival at the back of the high school.

The Rush City Fire Department was honored to once again hang a large American flag from its fire trucks for the Cambridge-based 850th Horizontal Engineer Company, whose soldiers reunited with family members during a welcome home celebration Dec. 22 at Cambridge-Isanti High School.
The Rush City Fire Department was honored to once again hang a large American flag from its fire trucks for the Cambridge-based 850th Horizontal Engineer Company, whose soldiers reunited with family members during a welcome home celebration Dec. 22 at Cambridge-Isanti High School.

Larry “Slick” Myslicki, ride captain for the region’s Minnesota Patriot Guard, said the nonprofit organization consists of volunteers — whether veterans or not — who answer calls to honor soldiers and families of veterans at deployment and welcome home gatherings, military funerals and other events. They help families of deployed soldiers in need, as well.

“We stand and show respect for the soldiers and their families,” Myslicki said. “It’s just an honor for us … to show the troops and their families our support and thanks.”

Once inside the school, deployed soldiers’ families found gift bags containing ornaments and other items, along with presents for their children. The gifts were provided by the Isanti County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon organization, and the bags were put together by the Company’s Family Readiness Group.

The latter consists of soldier spouses and parents, noted Family Readiness Group member Candi Lund, whose son, Spc. Christoffer Lund, is a 2009 graduate of CIHS.

Army Capt. Michael Thompson, commander of the 850th Horizontal Engineer Company, shed some light on what the soldiers accomplished in their deployment.

“Our soldiers hit the ground running when we arrived in Afghanistan,” he said. “One of our most notable achievements was the repair and improvement of an alternate supply route, which enabled us to divert convoys from a main supply route that routinely received enemy contact. The 850th executed this task with speed and precision despite the constant threat of enemy attacks.”

Thompson added, “I am extremely proud of these soldiers.”

In addition, the unit cleared mine fields, repaired various roads networks, improved drainage and flow control issues, deconstructed nonessential bases as well as built a resiliency center, a gym and multiple guard towers.

Soldiers from the 850th HEC represent 100 communities throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, with one soldier living as far away as Texas.

Six soldiers from Isanti who were deployed included Sgt. Thomas Gehrke, Sgt. Mitchell Perry, Spc. Davis Sjoberg and Sgt. Derek Zoerb; four from Cambridge included Spc. Alexander Kelley, Spc. Christoffer Lund and Spc. Kevin Nickel Jr.. There were also Pfc. Jesse Pearson, from Braham, and one soldier from Dalbo. (Not all the soldiers’ names are listed because some didn’t want to be named.)

The soldiers were commended for their service.

“Thank you for all your work,” said 1st Sgt. Jeffry Taylor. “You guys did a wonderful job during your deployment to Afghanistan. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of soldiers to take with me. Welcome home, and you are free to leave and head home to spend the holidays with your families.”

The unit appreciated the support it received while deployed.

“We would like to thank everyone who supported us during our deployment, especially Isanti County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, the Patriot Guard and our families,” Thompson said. “We felt your support and it made our mission over in Afghanistan that much easier.”

The average age of the deploying soldiers was 27 years old. The youngest soldier was 18 and the oldest was 55. This was the first deployment for 73 percent (110) of the 140 soldiers. Twenty-six percent (39) have previously deployed. For some, this was the second, third or fourth deployment.

Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer was moved to tears during the ceremony. Palmer was part of a large contingency of law enforcement that escorted the troops back into Cambridge.

“This is one of those days you’ll always remember,” Palmer said. “Your heart is so filled with gratitude. We’ve seen families crying, and babies reuniting with their parents. We have to always remember the thankfulness we feel right now and always offer our continued support for our troops.”

— Photos in slideshow, below, were taken by Jon Tatting

Members of the local Minnesota Patriot Guard chapter present its Honor Flag Line with American flags in hand. They opened doors for all of the soldiers’ families and guests who attended the celebration. A Patriot Guardsman (right) visits with a friend before the soldiers arrived. Susan Morris anticipates the soldiers' arrival with members of the Patriot Guard. She, Jim Rostberg and Sgt. Major Bob Boone, of Isanti County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, provided support for the soldiers and families during the eight-month deployment. The Rush City Fire Department was honored to once again use its trucks to display a large American flag for the 850th. Fire crews from Cambridge and Zimmerman also were on hand. Signs of support were placed on Highway 65 as well as in the city of Cambridge in anticipation of the soldiers’ arrival. The Cambridge, Rush City and Zimmerman fire trucks hung an American flag from their ladder trucks at the high school. Local law enforcement provide a police escort as the soldiers arrive at Cambridge-Isanti High School. The soldiers finally arrive. Arriving at the high school. 1st Lt. Michael Carr shakes hands with members of the Patriot Guard as he arrives at the high school. The soldiers of the 850th HEC of the Minnesota National Guard returned home after an eight-month deployment in Afghanistan. Pvt. Justin Patrick is greeted by members of the Patriot Guard as they get off the buses. Families, friends and members of the community packed the CIHS gymnasium where signs and cheers welcomed the soldiers home. Soldiers from the 850th HEC of the Minnesota National Guard arrive at the gymnasium. After a few brief comments, they were reunited with their families. Jennifer Saline and her children, of North Branch, brought plenty of enthusiasm and welcome home signs for husband and father, Sgt. Terry Saline, at Sunday’s celebration. Layla can hardly wait to see her dad, Sgt. Saline, while holding signs in both hands. It was an emotional reunion for the Saline family of North Branch, as Jessica watches her husband, Sgt. Terry Saline, take their daughter Layla into his arms. Pfc. Charlie Fimon, of Otsego, got to hold his 2-month-old son, Charlie, for the first time upon reuniting with wife Jessica and other family members at the Dec. 22 celebration held at Cambridge-Isanti High School. Pfc. Fimon gives his son a gentle kiss alongside his wife, Jessica, at the welcome home gathering. The welcome home celebration marked a special time for one Princeton family. Spc. Jeffrey Atkinson reunites with wife Ceara and their son, William, 1 1/2, at Cambridge-Isanti High School. Spc. Garret Kielb holds a loved one while visiting with others during the welcome home ceremony. Spc. Christoffer Lund and his family were all smiles during the welcome home ceremony.
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Susan Morris anticipates the soldiers' arrival with members of the Patriot Guard. She, Jim Rostberg and Sgt. Major Bob Boone, of Isanti County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, provided support for the soldiers and families during the eight-month deployment.