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Welcome back, 151st

Laura Grevas/Daily Globe ABOVE: Members of the Patriot Guard Riders hold flags Friday morning in anticipation of the passing of Army National Guard soldiers from 1st Battalion, 151st Field Artillery, who have just returned from a year in Iraq.2 / 4
Citizens in Slayton gather to cheer for the procession of fire trucks and motorcycles escoring the buses of soldiers to Marshall.3 / 4
Laura Grevas/Daily Globe A Patriot Guard Riders listens Friday morning to the plans for escorting buses of soldiers from Worthington to Marshall.4 / 4

WORTHINGTON -- The day was a bit gray, the wind was a bit high, and the time was a bit earlier than planned, none of which stopped people from dropping whatever they were doing Friday to stand along the highway and welcome back Army National Guard soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 151st Field Artillery unit.

Old Glory, cheers and thanks were the theme of the day.

News of the troops' return from Iraq had raced through the area, and plans were organized to greet them as they passed in buses, coming off Interstate 90 onto U.S. 59 north to Marshall.

Even a change in time didn't stop the police officers, firefighters and citizens who wanted to wave a flag and cheer as the buses drove by. Originally, the Patriot Guard Riders had planned to meet up with the buses around 11:30 a.m. or noon, but on Thursday night the time was pushed to 9 a.m.

Paul Ramsbey and Al Peterson, section ride captains for the Patriot Guard Riders, greeted other volunteer riders shortly before 9 a.m. in the parking lot of Prairie Holdings.

"We have a great weekend in front of us for southern Minnesota," Peterson said to the men gathered around, referring to troops returning to cities including Marshall, Currie, Fulda, Madison, Olivia, Morris and Ortonville.

Peterson shared the game plan with the riders, explaining where and how each was to join the procession that would ride with the troops all the way to Marshall.

The carefully choreographed plan was for a squad car and two motorcycles to lead the motorcade, followed by the buses, more motorcycles, fire trucks and personal vehicles. Pulling up the rear of the procession was a Chrysler PT Cruiser with a message in the back window stating, "Do not pass! Troop escort!"

After the final plans were discussed and people started wandering away, Ramsbey stepped forward with a comment that caused every person present to stop in his or her tracks.

"A little over a year ago, we had a send-off for these troops. Six hundred left," he stated. "Today, we'll welcome home 600."

While waiting for the troops to arrive, Brian Douty of Pipestone talked briefly of his experience of being welcomed home from a deployment with an escort from the Patriot Guard Riders.

"It was just ... I don't know the word to describe it," Douty said. "It was awesome."

Douty, a member of the U.S. Army National Guard and commander of the Pipestone and Luverne unit, was more than ready to make his first run as a Patriot Guard Rider Friday morning.

"There are going to be a lot of emotional families," he stated. "Coming home from a deployment is a great feeling."

As the buses filled with soldiers pulled off I-90, citizens stood by waving flags and cheering, something that would become a familiar sight to the returning troops. Followed by fire trucks and ambulances representing the cities of Marshall, Fulda, Slayton, Balaton, Cottonwood, Tracy and more, the buses headed north up the highway. Between Worthington and Fulda, an occasional vehicle was parked at the end of a road, its occupants bearing signs and flags.

In Fulda, signs and citizens waited.

"Welcome home, William," read two signs, a greeting for Fulda soldier Will Steinmetz, son of Doug and Cathy Steinmetz.

Murray County law enforcement dispatch kept firefighters and police informed of the motorcade's progress, letting people know as the troops cleared Fulda and continued north.

In Avoca, fire trucks, flags, citizens and even a flag-bearing dog greeted the soldiers as they passed.

As the troops neared Slayton, people stood in driveways and at street corners. At the intersection of U.S. 59 and Minnesota 30, people lined the road and parking lots with flags large and small, cheering, waving and hollering out thanks to the troops for their service.

"You guys are great!" shouted one member of the crowd. "Thanks for all you do."