The rain falling outside the Albuquerque Convention Center on Friday afternoon did little to dampen the spirits of an estimated 400 family members, friends and fellow New Mexico National Guardsmen who welcomed home the 126th Military Police Company from the Middle East.
“Thanksgiving has come early to the people of the state of New Mexico,” Brig. Gen. Andy Salas, the state Guard’s adjutant general, told the crowd; the 126th wasn’t initially scheduled to return until January.
Salas thanked the soldiers’ families, their employers, the Blue Star Mothers, elected officials, law enforcement and the community for the support they give their deployed soldiers.
About 120 soldiers with the 126th performed various military police custom inspections-type work while deployed, such as inspecting cargoes at maritime ports and airports across the Middle East. Working mainly out of Camp Arifjan, in Kuwait, units of the 126th also deployed to Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq and Afghanistan. They returned to the United States on Oct. 23 and, after going through the demobilization process at Fort Bliss, Texas, returned home this week.
Gov. Susana Martinez, the state Guard’s commander-in-chief, welcomed the troops home, thanking them for their service – and thanking their families for the sacrifices they make while their loved ones are serving thousands of miles away, often in harm’s way.
“This is one of the best parts of being governor of New Mexico – yellow ribbon ceremonies,” Martinez said.
“What you do for this country, I can never, ever say enough. How blessed we are that you wear the uniform.”
Martinez pointed out Spc. Rene Lopez, sitting in the front row with her husband, Spc. Jassen Lopez, who deployed together and left their four children – ages 3, 5, 6 and 8 – in the care of parents and sisters while they served in the Middle East.
“You have served our country in an honorable way,” she said.
“All of you are true Americans, and we thank you,” the governor said.
Capt. Joshua Walsh, commander of the 126th,was on stage with his 14-month-old son, Ryker, and his wife, DaCyn Walsh, who talked about how the yellow ribbon has become a symbol of remembrance “of men and women who served in places far from home.”
Near the conclusion of Friday’s Yellow Ribbon Welcome Home Ceremony, they removed a large yellow ribbon from a tree, officially welcoming the 126th home.
Holding Ryker just before the ceremony began, Capt. Walsh said, “It’s really good to be back.”
“It was a good deployment and learning experience, but it’s good to have all the families together again,” he said.
“It’s amazing,” to have her husband back after 10 months, said DaCyn Walsh. “Life will be a lot easier with him home.”
“Glad to be back,” said Sgt. Kevin Roberts as he held his 2-year-old daughter, Sienna, prior to the ceremony’s start.
“She was kind of shocked to see me. She’s used to seeing me in a video chat,” he said of his daughter.
Roberts, who turns 27 next week, and his girlfriend, Jennifer Velasquez, alternated holding Sienna – who was dressed in her Sunday best.
“It went by fast,” Roberts said of the 10-month deployment. “We stayed pretty busy.”
Spec. Skyler White, 24, of Clovis, was returning from his second deployment with the Guard: In 2012 he was part of a yearlong peacekeeping mission in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
“I’m very happy to be home. It’s great,” he said as he hugged his wife, Holly, who had a birthday two weeks before his return.
“It’s the best late birthday ever,” Holly White said. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
Also welcoming White back were his parents, Marlin and Deanna White.
“I’m so excited that he’s back home,” said Deanna White. “I couldn’t wait to get him in my arms again.”
“He looks great,” the specialist’s mother said. “He went from a boy to a young man” during the deployment.
Maj. Jason Peete, serving as emcee for the hourlong ceremony, gave four of the deployed soldiers “challenge coins” from former Army Cpl. Hiroshi H. “Hershey” Miyamura of Gallup, who received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions during the Korean war.
The coins were given in recognition of “outstanding performance during deployment,” Peete said, noting that Miyamura had planned on presenting the medals personally, but was unable to for medical reasons.
Those receiving the coins were: 2nd Lt. Matthew Nguyen; Staff Sgt. Charles Davis; Sgt. James Sheehan; and Sgt. Bradley Kalblinger.
A fifth coin will be given to Sgt. 1st Class Jason Schlensig, who did not attend the ceremony because of illness.