Army Spc. Joseph Cappello was so moved by an elaborate homecoming ceremony in his honor Monday afternoon, that he admitted to fighting back tears.
More than 200 people welcomed the 24-year-old Mount Prospect native at the American Legion Hall in Arlington Heights, shortly after his flight arrived from North Carolina. His surprise motorcade included escorts from the Mount Prospect and Arlington Heights police and fire departments, as well as motorcyclists from the Warriors' Watch Riders.
"This is overwhelming," he said, adding it was an "awesome surprise."
Cappello, who has been in the Army for 2½ years, is home for the holidays through Jan. 21, after serving nine months in Afghanistan. He's stationed in Colorado and hasn't decided whether to re-enlist -- his eventual goal is to become a Chicago police officer.
The Christmas Eve festivities all started two weeks ago, with an email from Cappello's mother, Gina Walter, to Dawn Fletcher Collins, executive director of the Mount Prospect Chamber of Commerce. In the email, Walter told Collins her son was coming home for the holidays and wanted to know whether the village had a tradition of welcoming veterans home.
As it turned out, it didn't, but Walter's email changed all that.
"I said, 'You know what, we do now,'" Collins said.
Collins contacted Bill Starr, commander of American Legion Post 525 in Mount Prospect and they, in turn, sent messages and invitations to everyone they knew and helped plan the homecoming.
Starr said he hopes Cappello's welcome makes up for the other soldiers who returned to America with little to no fanfare.
"I came home three times -- once from Vietnam, Bosnia and Kosovo and each time, I just got my duffle bag and walked across O'Hare Field," Starr said. "In this case, we're going to welcome him home in recognition of the soldiers who did not get welcomed home."
After Cappello emerged from a black SUV wearing a black Carolina Panthers baseball cap turned backward and black sunglasses, the crowd went wild with cheers and applause.
During a brief ceremony at the Legion hall, Cappello, who had not been home since January, was presented with a key to Mount Prospect, a certificate of appreciation, gift baskets and other goodies.
Several area businesses also donated food for use at Cappello's Legion luncheon.
"I didn't expect this at all and thanks for being there for me," Cappello told the crowd.
Lots of members of his family. including his mother, Gina Walter, his brother Nicholas Walter, 7, his sister Gianna Walter, 5, his grandparents Marge and Chris Lembesis, his cousin Julie Galati and about a dozen other relatives, hung out with Cappello at the Legion.
His plans are to relax during the holiday, to spend time with his family, his 3-year-old son, Dominick, and his friends.
Cappello, who is Italian-American, is also looking forward to enjoying traditional Italian food during the holidays. He's especially excited about eggplant Parmesan -- a dish that wasn't available to him in Afghanistan.