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Citizen-soldiers will get big welcome home

The long-awaited day will finally arrive.

It’s been almost a year since Roseburg’s Charlie Company of the National Guard left for training in Texas and nine months since it deployed to Afghanistan — time enough for family, friends and well-wishers to think about how they want to welcome the soldiers home.

They’ve chosen to go big.

Six-foot-long banners will hang from nine freeway overpasses, welcoming the members of Charlie Company as they caravan northward from Medford to Roseburg next Wednesday. Family members will join the caravan in pickups and cars at various spots along the route.

The whole parade will head to the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center and through its campus, hailed by flag-waving veterans and a community of well-wishers. Next, it will head for the Roseburg Armory.

At their final stop, the soldiers will create one last formation, then their families will welcome them home with signs, yellow ribbons and tears of joy.

A couple of soldiers will even give their own kids a surprise the next morning, when they will emerge from oversized boxes the children have only been told are special gifts.

Charlie Company includes about 100 citizen-soldiers from Roseburg, who were deployed to Afghanistan in September, along with other members of the Ashland-based 1st Battalion, 186th Infantry Regiment. The 186th also has soldiers from Coos Bay, Medford and Grants Pass. Together, they provided security at Bagram Airfield, America’s largest military base in Afghanistan, located near Kabul.

Anticipating their return, VA maintenance mechanic Bob Decker has been painstakingly creating a series of 10 large signs bearing the words “Welcome Home Veterans.” Nine will be hung from overpasses along the soldiers’ route home, and one will hang on the Fred Meyer store on Garden Valley Boulevard.

Decker designed the freeway banners on a computer. He used 13 stars along the top and bottom borders to represent the 13 original colonies, and he made the flag lighter so it appears to be behind the words. Decker carefully layered stickers across a 2.5-by-6-foot rectangle of vinyl to create the effect.

“It’s my way of paying forward. I’m not a veteran, but I was put on this Earth to give these guys and gals a happy place,” he said. “We’re proud of ’em. We can’t thank ’em enough.”

While Decker was getting started on his signs, Kaylene Wilcox of Canby and her four children — ages 5, 3, 2 and 16 months — were putting the finishing touches on one of their own.

Kaylene’s husband, Staff Sgt. James Wilcox, will arrive at the armory to find his wife holding a sign bearing all of his children’s handprints, his baby boy’s footprints and these words: “These are the hands that prayed for you and these are the feet that learned to walk while you were gone.”

James Wilcox, who grew up in Roseburg and met his wife at Western Oregon University, will also discover his wife has dyed her hair blond. The kids will remain at home next week. They think their mother is traveling to Roseburg to buy them a present, so they’ll receive quite a surprise when Daddy emerges from the giant gift box.

Kaylene Wilcox can hardly wait.

“It’s overwhelming,” she said. “We’ve been waiting for this day for months and months. This time has been going so slow, and now today it’s like, wow, we have a week. They’re going to be home in a week. It feels so weird. I almost don’t even feel like it’s real. It feels so surreal, like is it really over, is this really happening?”

Tera Shirley of Roseburg said her husband, Sgt. Luke Shirley, will also be coming out of a box to surprise his kids. Shirley and her mother, Nena Winkler of Myrtle Creek, will be welcoming two soldiers home next Wednesday. Tyler Rookstool, who is Winkler’s son and Tera Shirley’s little brother, will arrive home the same day.

Shirley and Winkler are busy making signs and tying yellow ribbons around everything in their front yards. Winkler said she doesn’t have a tree, so she’ll be putting ribbons on her cars, her boat and along the walkway.

Winkler said when her son called her from Texas, she was in shock.

“I didn’t believe it until I heard my son’s voice, and then I just started bawling. My daughter just kept telling me, ‘Mom this is a good thing.’ I said, ‘I know, these are happy tears,’ ” Winkler said.

The two plan to join the convoy as it passes Myrtle Creek.

Shirley said she’s not sure what it’s going to be like seeing her husband again for the first time in a year.

“When I think about it I have butterflies,” she said. “I’m so excited.”

You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or ccegavske@nrtoday.com.