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A hero’s welcome

Ashley and Jesse Kneeskern met about five years, got married two years ago, and spent the last year together overseas.

However, this seemingly normal family story has a twist — Jesse and Ashley met while deployed in Iraq, and on Wednesday, the soldiers returned to Austin from their latest tour in Afghanistan.

The Kneeskerns were among 27 soldiers from the 114th Transportation Company, a supply unit of the Minnesota National Guard, to arrive to a hero’s welcome at the city armory. Waiting for them were teary-eyed friends and family members, many of whom carried American flags or signs with the names of their loved ones.

“It felt wonderful,” Ashley Kneeskern said of the reception. “Words can’t even explain it. (It brought) instant tears to my eyes.”

Added Jesse: “It was awesome. It’s what you look forward to those 13 months.”

Waiting for Jesse Kneeskern, among others, was his father, Steve, and his 9-year-old son, Kadin.

For Kadin, this was the second time he had to deal with dad being deployed. However, when Jesse Kneeskern was in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, the younger Kneeskern said he was too young to really understand what was going on. This time around, Kadin was more aware of dad being gone.

“When I was little, I didn’t get it as much,” Kadin said. “Now, I’m starting to.”

But with dad back in town, Kadin Kneeskern lit up with a big smile Wednesday as and his father made plans to go fishing on Sunday.

Other little ones were also overcome with joy upon seeing a parent for the first time in a year. Biridiana, 6, and Fatima Vazquez, 8, began sobbing when their father, Ivan Vazquez, started walking across the lawn toward them.

Wife and mother Janet, herself wiping away tears, let the youngsters run into dad’s arms for a big embrace. Ivan Vazquez said the emotions of seeing his family again were overwhelming.

“It meant a lot to me,” he said. “I only dreamt of this moment, until now.”

Added Janet Vazquez: “It’s so exciting to see him again. These are definitely happy tears.”

Despite the joyous reunion, Ivan Vazquez and his family still have a little bit of a journey left. The soldier is a Chicago transplant who volunteered to join the Austin-based unit. It was his first deployment.

“At first, it was a little nerve-wracking,” Ivan Vazquez said. “But we had a good group … They welcomed me in.”

Others also had commutes out of Austin waiting for them. Chris Fladmark, of Winona, was waiting to greet her husband, Jesse. Jesse Fladmark had been deployed before, Chris said, but that was before they met. Going through it together for the first time was hard, Chris Fladmark said.

“It was very emotional,” she said. “I had to find a lot of support.”

Aleta Christopherson said she’s gotten better at dealing with deployment in her family. Her son, Hans Gilbert, returned Wednesday from his third tour abroad.

Christopherson, who is a Mower County employee and lives in Austin, said she’s had to learn to go against her maternal instincts with her 28-year-old son.

“I’ve reached a point where I realize there’s nothing I can do about it,” she said.

Still, the mother said that doesn’t mean she isn’t ecstatic to have her son back.

“Your emotions are just so mixed up,” Christopherson said of return days. “I was pacing this morning. You just never stop worrying.”

No matter where the various soldiers, friends and family members came from — or what their stories were — a few things were shared by all who gathered at the Austin armory Wednesday: the sense of pride felt about these soldiers and the joy in having them back.

“Oh yes, definitely proud of him,” Chris Fladmark said of her husband. “But I’m excited to have him home.”