Twenty of Staff Sgt. Shawn Sullivan's closest family members sat quietly, waiting.
But when Sullivan finally strode into Omaha's National Guard Armory on Thursday evening — almost one year to the day after he'd been deployed — his two children couldn't wait any longer.
Dusty, 9, and Trista, 8, jumped up and ran to their father, sparking a stampede of other family members greeting the seven members of the 181st Engineer Detachment Firefighting Team, based in Norfolk, Neb., and returning from Afghanistan.
Sullivan picked up Trista, then Dusty. His wife, who waited patiently for several minutes, eventually cut in.
“OK, mommy's turn,” Kate Sullivan told her children. She wrapped her husband in a hug. “Hi, babe.”
Shawn Sullivan oversaw his six comrades, who set up and served at a fire station in northern Afghanistan. They responded to emergencies and fires, much as civilian firefighters do. Fortunately, there were no massive blazes during their time there.
The unit was deployed Sept. 11, 2011 — a date that made some family members nervous. But every member of the unit returned safely, and Sullivan received a coin commemorating his service.
“You really brought these troops home in good shape,” said retired Brig. Gen. Dayle Williamson, speaking on behalf of Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
With the return of this unit, fewer than 50 Nebraska National Guard members remain deployed overseas, said 2nd Lt. Alex Salmon, a Nebraska National Guard spokesman.
Sullivan, 31, is one of seven children — four of his siblings serve in the military — and his family was his No. 1 homecoming priority.
“You have Skype and you have phone calls, but it's not the same,” he said.
Sullivan said he missed the green grass of Nebraska and children's laughter. The arid base where they were stationed, he said, was short on both.
Sgt. Patrick Farrens, one of the returning soldiers, had hoped to surprise his girlfriend at work Thursday night in Vermillion, S.D. But he had to leave Omaha after the ceremony for a last-minute job interview in Olathe, Kan.
His parents drove to Omaha to meet him.
“He is proud of his unit and we are proud of him (and) them,” said his mother, Greta Mabry.
Another member of the 181st, Spc. David Buller, was looking forward to a Husker football game.
Buller was still processing his thoughts after the long journey from Afghanistan.
“You never really think it's going to get here,” he said of the return date.
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