Families and friends of members of the 198th Military Police Battalion of the Kentucky National Guard received a late Christmas gift Tuesday as their loved ones returned home from Afghanistan.

The Louisville-based Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 198th MP Battalion, departed Louisville in early December 2005 and deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan, in January 2006.

The 105-member unit’s main mission was to conduct detainee operations at the Bagram Air Base, in addition to security patrols off the base.

They were greeted at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville by colorful signs, waving American flags, tears of joy and plenty of hugs and kisses by loved ones.

“It was very emotional,” said Debbie Dale, mother of Spc. Shannon Dale of Paint Lick and a nurse at Pattie A. Clay Regional Medical Center. “I hugged her no tighter than she hugged me. Then, there was somebody who was hugging us both from behind us. I’m not sure who that was.”

With so many people searching for their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, grandchildren and friends, the 20-year-old Shannon said she did not think she was ever going to find her family.

“I was just really anxious to get to them and give them all a really big hug,” she said. “My mom kind of found me. She grabbed me and pulled me through the crowd.”

“It’s been a long, tiresome year,” said Shannon, who plans on continuing to study occupational therapy in the summer at Eastern Kentucky University. “I’m just relieved to be home. It’s very exciting.”

While Shannon may have missed Christmas in December with her family, she was able to get in the holiday spirit Tuesday when she returned to Paint Lick.

Encouraged by resident Rita Fox, several homeowners and businesses in the community kept up their festive lights, wreaths and other holiday decorations as a way to show support Shannon and other local soldiers returning from duty.

A fire truck from the Paint Lick/Cartersville Volunteer Fire Department led Shannon into town, where dozens of people cheered and waved flags and ribbons.

The idea originated after Fox learned that Shannon’s family was postponing Christmas until she returned from overseas.

“I was really upset that I was away for Christmas,” said Shannon, whose father, Anthony, stroked her hair and kissed her forehead as her mom hugged her upon her arrival. “It was my first Christmas away from home. I knew my mom had planned on doing Christmas when I got home. I’m looking forward to it.”

“She still has shopping to do,” said Debbie Dale, who held up sign stating, “KY Moms Love 198th MP,” while waiting for her daughter. “We’re ready. Our gifts are wrapped. They’re under the tree and ready to open. Christmas is great, but the best part is already here because she’s home.”

Clayburn Johnson, a pastor at Vicco Church of God in Hazard, and his wife, Lorene, also greeted their son, 26-year-old Spc. Jeremiah Johnson of Richmond, home from Afghanistan.

“I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time,” said Clayburn Johnson, who wore a button with his son’s photo on it. “(Jeremiah) is coming back to Hazard Saturday to have a welcome home dinner Sunday at our church.”

A freshman at EKU, Jeremiah lives with his 22-year-old brother, Nehemiah, who could not attend the welcome home celebration because of classes.

“I plan on spending some time with family and friends,” Jeremiah said. “I plan on just taking it easy and having Christmas.”

“I’m happy that we still got support for what we do,” Jeremiah said. “We’re all glad that we all made it back in one piece. We’re like brothers and sisters.”

For his parents, the year their son has been gone has been difficult, but they said they received a lot of prayers from friends and church members.

“I’ve been pretty restless and anxious,” Clayburn Johnson said about the days leading up to his son’s return. “He got to come home in September for 15 days, but it just makes it worse every time he has to go back. It’s been pretty rough emotionally, especially for my wife. She doesn’t have any fingernails left.”

“Hopefully, now I’ll be able to grow some back,” she said. “I’m very excited and very proud of my son.”

Lancaster resident Christi Poynter was joined by her two teenagers — 14-year-old David and 13-year-old Danielle — as they welcomed home her husband and their father, Spc. Michael Poynter.

“I have been nervous and jittery on the inside for the past three days,” she said about seeing her 37-year-old husband of almost 15 years.

“We’re going to be celebrating at our church this Sunday evening,” she said. “Then, he and I are going to take a weekend away the following weekend.”

After the hugs and kisses subsided, a brief formal ceremony was conducted honoring the soldiers’ work during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Kentucky Adjutant Gen. Donald Storm described the 198th MP Battalion’s duties as “one of the most complex missions.”

“We’ve had a lot of problems in detention facilities,” he said. “But, when there’s that risk and problems, you call the best. You call the 198th. (The facility) housed some of the most evil people on the face of the Earth. Yet, the soldiers of the 198th ran that facility with respect and human dignity.

Along with the playing of the national anthem and “My Old Kentucky Home,” Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who greeted the unit as they exited their plane, also gave his words of thanks.

“You never forget the visions of things like the one wife here that ran right up, jumped up and gave her husband a big hug,” he said. “That’s what we’re here for, to say that you’ve been there, you’ve answered the call, you’ve done a job remarkably well and you’ve come home to a warm welcome. Please, know that we deeply appreciate your work to not only protect our security in our nation, but to make it a safer world as well.”

Storm echoed the governor’s remarks, adding that the soldiers were some of the finest in the world.

“This is your day,” he said. “We’ve been blessed. This is the answer to a lot of prayers. I can tell you that your families and all your loved ones prayed every night. So, we’re blessed today to have you home.”

Bryan Marshall can be reached at bmarshall@richmondregister.com or 624-6691.

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