STOCKTON — After a tour in Afghanistan that lasted nearly a year, valley soldiers returned safely to their families Tuesday.
All told, 117 troops from the 1-126 Aviation Battalion of the California National Guard walked across the Stockton Metropolitan Airport tarmac to be greeted by friends, family and American flags waving lightly in the morning breeze.
The men and women of Bravo Company, a Chinook helicopter unit, were heralded by the deafening roar of motorcycles driven by volunteers who came from all over Northern California to see them arrive. And some were greeted by the pudgy arms of infants who were born while they were away.
Pvt. Patrick Gagen met his 10-month-old nephew, Miguel Ramirez, shortly after stepping off the plane. The baby made several grabs at his uncle's black sunglasses while Gagen smiled. "I've been waiting to meet you," he said as the baby turned to clutch at his hands.
Miguel's mother, Moana, of Fair Oaks, went into labor two days after Gagen deployed. She teared up as she waited for her brother-in-law to arrive.
"We're here to see them and support them and tell them we're glad they're coming home," she said.
Spc. David Rojo of Folsom saw his 10-month-old son, Zachary, for the second time since his birth in October. Rojo got a short leave to watch his son's birth but had to join his unit in Afghanistan shortly after.
"I was only able to hold him for about 12 hours," Rojo said.
During his tour, he watched his son reach several milestones, such as learning to crawl, through online video chats. But that didn't compare with holding his son, Rojo said.
"The real thing's much better," he said.
As the troops streamed off the plane and into the waiting arms of their loved ones, one man hung back from the crowd with folded arms and a small smile.
Master Sgt. Rick Hendriks, the former enlisted commander of the unit, was notified one week before the company's deployment that he wouldn't be going to Afghanistan because of a knee surgery.
He stayed home and worked with the company commander, Capt. Ben Bowman, to make sure that families of his company were cared for. He emailed and had video conferences with the commander weekly.
The company arrived home on the same day three U.S. soldiers were reported killed by a suicide bomber in Wardak province in Afghanistan, the type of news that Hendriks said he was worried about receiving while his troops were overseas.
"It weighs on you, definitely," he said.
Hendriks is a two-tour veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It's a lot worse staying back," he said. "Being stuck back, you almost get a guilt trip. I don't know why."
As he talked, troops periodically broke away from the crowd and pulled him into bear hugs. One thanked him for his help.
"It's a good feeling having them back," Hendriks said.
Also in attendance was a contingent from the Patriot Guard Riders, a national organization of motorcyclists who attend military functions to show their support.
Matt Golden, an assistant state captain of the Patriot Guard Riders, attended the homecoming with 21 of his fellow motorcyclists, who lined up their bikes in front of the plane to create an entryway for the deplaning troops. Golden said he showed up to honor the service of the troops.
"Let's face it: When a guy goes overseas, he's basically writing a blank check with his life, cashable anytime," Golden said.
Bowman described the safe homecoming of the troops in his company as the "high time of his military career."
While Bowman spoke, a wife of one of the men who served under him sidled over and smiled at him with tears in her eyes. "God bless you," she said. "Thank you so much."