PARIS, Ill. – As Staff Sgt. Nicholas Rose cradled his 3-month-old son against a late-winter chill Tuesday, his thoughts drifted back to the sometimes deadly missions his unit endured during a year in the deserts of Iraq.
"It's great to be back. I just wish everybody was back with us," the 26-year-old said after the Army National Guard (search) unit received a hero's welcome that drew about 5,000 people to this small southeastern Illinois city near the Indiana border.
Five members of the Paris-based 1544th Transportation Company (search) were killed during the unit's tour of Iraq -- the second most of any U.S. guard unit since the war began nearly two years ago, state guard officials said.
Delivering supplies and mail around Baghdad, the 160-member unit drew more than 100 mortar attacks and came under enemy fire 60 times, sustaining injuries that earned 32 Purple Hearts (search), said company commander Brandon Tackett.
Crowds stood up to 10-deep along flag-lined streets as three charter buses dropped off soldiers for the long-awaited homecoming. In desert camouflage, guardsmen paraded past pole-mounted signs bearing their names as people cheered and cameras clicked. Two fire department ladder trucks draped a massive flag across Main Street.
"They told us to expect a crowd, but I didn't expect anything like this," said Lt. John Harvey, 26. "It's overwhelming."
The unit has members from across Illinois and at least four other states. Relatives said the homecoming means no longer cringing when the phone rings or newscasts detail the latest casualties in Iraq.
Dana Bogle, mother of 24-year-old Sgt. Bobbi Ward, also said the deployment forever changed the way she'll look at war.
"War will always be more personal for me now," she said. "It will always be somebody's child."