The applause rose to a deafening roar with the introduction of another special group at the Summit Center gymnasium — the 150 members of Yankton-based Charlie Battery, fresh from a year in Iraq.
The recognition of the fatigue-clad soldiers drew a lengthy thunderous standing ovation from the estimated 4,000 people in attendance. The event drew not only family and friends from a tri-state area but also extensive media coverage including NBC News. The network plans to air the story at 5:30 p.m. today (Monday).
Rounds pointed out he was there some 500 days earlier when Charlie Battery was activated. "At that time, I said a better use of this facility would be for a basketball game. It's even better used for a welcome home," he said.
The stage was flanked by shadow boxes representing Charlie Battery's four fallen soldiers: Sgt. 1st Class Richard Schild, Staff Sgt. Daniel Cuka, Staff. Sgt. Gregory Wagner and Sgt. Allen Kokesh Jr. In addition, Sgt. Corey Briest and Spc. Brian Knigge were wounded in action. Briest remains hospitalized in California.
"Today is a little bit bittersweet. We feel the pain of (the loss of) your brothers and look forward to the return of Corey," Rounds said. "I want to say thank you for your service. Be proud of everything you have done while you were away."
The most chilling moment of the ceremony came during the roll call, when each soldier loudly responded to his name — except for the silence when the names of the four fallen soldiers were called.
Sgt. Major George Arends called each name three times, only to be met with no response. Many in the audience, including Charlie Battery soldiers, openly wept at the moment.
The ceremony included the presentation of the Bronze Star to Staff Sgt. Adam Haas and Spc. Kasey Feauto. The Purple Heart was presented to Sgt. Brian Knigge, while the Army Commendation with Valor was presented to Spc. Lucas Scheibe.
Maj. Gen. Gorman, the National Guard's adjutant general, talked about the casualties the unit suffered.
"We are so happy to have the great warriors here, but there is profound sadness for those who are not here today," he said. "You all did your mission, but some of you did not return. That weighs us down."
Gorman said he was concerned about the unit after a May incident with roadside bombs which claimed Wagner's life and injured Knigge.
"I visited (Charlie Battery) in May, shortly after the incident, and I was concerned about what I would find when I got there," Gorman said. "They were sobered by their losses, but they were intent on learning from tragedy and continuing the mission."
Gorman credited the leadership of Capt. Phil Stiles and Sgt. Major Arends for Charlie Battery's resiliency.
"I found their attitude outstanding. Charlie Battery truly is a band of brothers who have forged a bond that will last forever," Gorman said. "You are truly molded in the image of all South Dakota soldiers who have gone before you. You will remember the good times and be silenced by the bad."
Gorman recognized the support group leadership of Mary Ann Arends and Kelli Lacroix. In addition, the South Dakota Everyday Hero award was presented to Capt. Stiles for service beyond the ordinary of what is expected.
The ceremony included two special greetings. One was an audio message from Yankton native and former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw recognizing Charlie Battery as a "new generation" of greatness while continuing the tradition of citizen soldiers.
"Welcome home, everybody, and I hope you never have to be called in harm's way again," Brokaw said.
And the other — a surprise to the troops — created an emotional moment. It was a video and audio message from Briest, who is recuperating in California.
Sgt. Major Arends, visibly moved by the message, led the audience in a standing ovation for Briest.
In his closing message, Stiles commended the extended Charlie Battery family.
"Our unit far surpassed any. You were unequaled in volume, spirit and every way, shape or form," he said. "I am proud to be part of the Yankton community. I look forward to getting back here."
During its mission, Charlie Battery has been awarded 22 Bronze Stars, four with valor; 10 Army Commendations with Valor, 165 regular Army Commendations, 157 Combat Action Badges and 18 Purple Hearts.
"I thank the soldiers who have done a difficult mission with no deceleration, all acceleration," Stiles said. "We were the best of the brigade. This was awesome. I couldn't have a better crew."
The ceremony was bittersweet for the families of two Charlie Battery soldiers.
Wagner's brother, Dan, said the family nearly didn't attend the ceremony but was encouraged by Guard officials to be present.
"I told my brother, before he left, that I would be there when they came home," Dan Wagner said. "He beat (the other soldiers) home, but they are all now home. There were a lot of hugs and tears shed (at the welcome home), but in the end, there is a lot of joy for the kids coming home and getting off the bus."
Bruce Schild saw both joy and sadness with the loss of brother Richard Schild and the safe return of another brother, Staff Sgt. Brooks Schild.
"There was a closure today, a finality of it," Bruce said. "After Rich was killed, for the next year, we were on pins and needles. Everything you heard, you were waiting for an e-mail or phone call (of bad news)."
Saturday brought mixed emotions, Bruce admitted. "This was bittersweet. We are happy that Brooks is home, but at the same time, we miss my other brother, Richard.
"Today is Brooks' day. After this, we can close the mourning and start healing."