The well-deserved hero's welcome thrown by a crowd of friends and family -- along with an escort by local police, firefighters and the motorcycle-riding Patriot Guard -- left Marine Cpl. Marcus Kuiper humbled and gracious as he returned to his hometown of Barrington from Afghanistan Saturday afternoon.
Just 28 hours after leaving his base in Afghanistan, Kuiper stepped out of a minivan beneath the cool skies and already changing leaves outside Wool Street Grill & Tavern in downtown Barrington.
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Loved ones and friends from his Barrington High School days -- barely four years earlier -- cheered and waved American flags as he took a deep breath, slowly turned around and took it all in.
"I don't even know what to say," he finally stammered. "Really, I mean, thank you so much for coming out. This is the last thing I expected."
Kuiper's stepmother, Jessica, said she wanted him to have a great homecoming. But the reality she set in motion with one phone call far exceeded her expectations.
"There's no way I could have even imagined the turnout," Jessica Kuiper said.
"I knew Jessica was up to something, but this means so much to me," Marcus told the crowd. "Thank you so much! Let's go enjoy!"
Since graduating from Barrington High School in 2008, Marcus has completed two deployments to Afghanistan -- one of about four months and the most recent of about eight months.
His active service contract ends next July. Though he hopes to stay in San Diego through then before going back to school to be a videography teacher, the Marine Corps has given him no guarantees of staying put.
Marcus Kuiper said a call from a recruiter shortly after he was out of school made him consider the benefits of joining up. It's a decision he has no regrets about.
"It paid dividends. It really did," Marcus said.
Though he's been a Barrington resident all his life, his homecoming at Wool Street Grill was to be followed by seeing his family's new house in Crystal Lake for the first time. There he'll spend the next two weeks reuniting with his father Mark, stepmother, Jessica, 19-year-old brother, T.J. and 2-year-old stepsister, Megan.
Life in Afghanistan had its good days and bad days, like anywhere else, Marcus said. While the public's perception of the conditions there is probably pretty accurate, he said only those with a personal connection through a loved one likely have a full understanding of a soldier's life there.