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Ashley Lowery, Deseret News
Kelly Fisher embraces son Johnathen Gustofson as he returns to Utah Wednesday after a deployment to Iraq with the National Guard's 145th Field Artillery.

Austin and Nathanael Grenz, ages 9 and 6, stood on top of a concrete barrier, trying to see above the crowd. They were dressed for the occasion in their kid-size camouflage.

They struggled to maintain their balance as they held a paper "welcome home" sign between them. The youngest of the Grenz boys, Justin, 4, played below them, seemingly oblivious.

Out on the tarmac, the plane rolled to a stop, and the stairs were rolled in place. When the door opened, soldiers got out of the plane, one by one. The boys checked each face, eagerly searching for the right one.

"There he is, there he is!" said Austin. "Oh, that's not him."

And a moment later — "It was him!"

The Grenz boys were looking for Sgt. Shawn Gustaveson. One year ago Gustaveson married their mother, Kristy, on May 19. He took the entire family on a honeymoon to Disneyland, then deployed to Iraq two days later.

Seventeen members of the Curtis family from Layton were also welcoming home a son. They all wore camouflage and T-shirts with a photo of their soldier, Spc. Riley Curtis. His mother, Raelynn, said that while her son was gone some days were better than others, but she is very proud of him.

"We have a lot of respect for these guys and gals who do this so we can have our freedom," she said.

The Curtises will be celebrating tonight with a street party in their neighborhood, where more than 100 people will celebrate with them.

Gustaveson and Curtis are among the 130 soldiers from the First Battalion, 145th Field Artillery Unit, Utah National Guard, who returned home Wednesday, arriving in two flights. The first group returned Monday afternoon, and the final group will return today.

It wasn't just families who were moved by today's homecoming. Col. Jerry Acton commanded many of the soldiers in this unit almost two years ago in an earlier deployment. Soon after they arrived home, Acton was deployed to Afghanistan with another unit, so he has not seen some of the soldiers for almost two years.

"It is exciting to see them today," he said.

A large group of Patriot Guard Riders, each carrying a U.S. flag, lined a walkway from the plane. The motorcyclists have vowed to "support those who support us."

According to a National Guard press release, the 1/145th consists of Alpha Battery (Logan), Alpha Battery, Detachment 1 (Brigham City), Bravo Battery (Manti), Charlie Battery, Detachment 1 (Fillmore) and Service and Headquarters Batteries at Camp Williams. They were deployed last June to Camp Bucca, Iraq, where they performed military police duties.

This was a first deployment for Spc. James Elizondo, Taylorsville, who said the experience was better than he expected.

"I didn't take into account the camaraderie I would feel with the other soldiers, or even my own personal development," he said.

The soldiers landed at the Utah National Guard Air Base just hours before President George W. Bush landed on Air Force One. However, they were instructed to hug their family members, get their bags and head home.

That was one order they were more than happy to obey.


E-mail: amacavinta@desnews.com