Palatine soldier welcomed home from Afghanistan with drive-by parade
It was a happy day for Staff Sgt. Eric Gutzmer of Palatine, one of about 400 members of the Illinois Army National Guard 1st Battalion, 178th Infantry Regiment.
The group, headquartered in Chicago with local companies in Elgin and Woodstock, had been deployed since July to support Operation Freedom's Sentinel in Afghanistan. They returned stateside earlier this month, but were held for a 14-day COVID-19 quarantine in Texas before Sunday's arrival in Chicago.
Now home with his wife, Abbie, and children, Will and Ellie, he received a hero's welcome Monday when families from St. James Catholic school and church in Arlington Heights held a surprise drive-by parade complete with balloons, signs, flashing lights and honking horns.
Pamela Kelly of Arlington Heights and Lauren Madden, second-grade teacher at St. James, organized the parade. Both Kelly and Abbie Gutzmer have children in Madden's class.
The parade originally was planned just for second-grade students and parents, but invitations to other school and church families quickly spread. Kelly said it is important to show support of military members and their families "as they give up so much to give us our freedom."
Sgt. Gutzmer said the parade was amazing, as he looked over the signs and gifts he received.
"It's great to be home after nine long months," Gutzmer said. "It's weird times with all the COVID stuff going on, but the amount of love yesterday when we got home from my friends and today from the Saint James family, it's just unbelievable."
Gov. J.B. Pritzker paid tribute to the Guard members at the start of his daily news conference on Sunday, praising them for their "phenomenal strength."
"It's the Guard that deserves our deepest reverence and gratitude," Pritzker said.
In a Facebook post, Brig. Gen. Richard Neely, the Adjutant General of the Illinois National Guard, also expressed his gratitude.
"We are very proud of these soldiers who performed difficult combat missions in austere conditions," Neely wrote. "In other days, we would have a big welcome-home ceremony with crowds of families, veterans and other supporters. During the pandemic, we brought them home quietly to protect their safety and the safety of the public. That in no way diminishes our gratitude to these great women and men."