MAINEVILLE, Ohio - A distinctly planted row of American flags waved in unison under the bright sunlight as nine soldiers from the 943rd Engineer Detachment rolled in from Afghanistan.
"You know this country is the greatest country on Earth. And why is that? Because of soldiers like you!" could be heard throughout the hall at the Kings Mills U.S. Army Reserve Center Sunday afternoon.
The front gate decorated with “Welcome Home” signs started to open, sliding past the gravel path. Two vans, full of soldiers, made their way passed the chain link fence-type gate.
They unloaded from the full-sized white vans and walk passed Veterans who thanked them for their service, shaking their hands. But it’s inside the Reserve Center that these soldiers are anxious to get to. That’s where their families wait.
"The Army makes our nation strong. Soldiers make our Army strong. Families make our soldiers strong,” said an uniformed man inside.
The nine soldiers walked in. They are greeted with loud whistles, clapping and cheering—as well as some tears, and a lot of hugs and kisses.
"Welcome home! Welcome home 943rd! Welcome home!"
Cpl. Peter Raab was deployed for 10 months. Walking in was overwhelming for the husband and father.
"It was a relief to actually be able to see my wife, my son, my family."
His 3-year-old son William has been waiting to tell his daddy something that he learned just for his return.
Securely within his father’s arms, he moved his tiny hand over his heart, "...for which it stands. One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Army wife, Stefanie Raab played the role of both parents for nearly a year, she said.
"It's definitely hard. You miss him a lot."
Even harder when, while her husband was in Afghanistan, Stefanie was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. It was something no one was expecting, especially her husband who was an ocean away from his wife.
"It was a shocker. You know, definitely being away from my wife and my two kids in an environment where anything can happen—and all of a sudden you get that news that the person you love the most just got cancer," said Peter.
He was able to take a two-week leave to be there for her surgery in May. And since that surgery, she has been cancer-free.
The two, who are so close now, didn't start out even liking each other.
"We worked in the pediatric department together, and he drove me absolutely insane," said Stefanie, holding her husband’s hand.
"One day, my dad brought my oldest child [Laney] up to have lunch with me, and she saw him and she liked him. She said, 'You should go on a date with him.'"
That fifth-grade matchmaker could not be at the reunion at the Reserve Center in Maineville because she had a basketball game to win in Northern Kentucky—plus the 11-year-old thought her dad is due to return from Afghanistan next month.
All the way on the other side of the Tri-State in Edgewood, Ky., the Beechwood Tigers got ready to take the floor battling St. Pius X.
No. 53, Laney Raab, dribbled her way to the 2-point line, took her shot… nothing but net. It was drills and she was gearing up for her last game of the season.
As the game was about to start, both teams gather by the scoreboard. Laney’s coach took the microphone and announced a special guest… returning from Afghanistan.
Laney’s face lit up, eyes wide—confused, however, because Peter has yet to walk through the gym doors. She looked all around her, then he walked in, pink roses in hand.
She immediately pounded the hardwood floor to get to his arms as fast as she could.
They embraced, Laney sobbing in his camouflaged chest.
“I’m here, I’m back… I’m not going anywhere,” the father assured his young daughter. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she told him.
The crowd cheered, many with tears in their eyes for the second reunion of the day.
As the game commenced, Beechwood grabbed the ball from the start. It was evident that an emotional start gave Laney the upper hand—scoring the first points of the game, leaving the crowd standing and cheering.