PLANT CITY — Tracy Sikorski probably summed up the feelings of everyone on hand Sunday to welcome home 300 Florida Army National Guard soldiers from nearly a year’s deployment.
“I’m excited and happy that he’s home and that he’s safe,” Sikorski said of her nephew, Sgt. Sean Nickelson. “We’re very proud of him and we’re glad he’s back with us.”
Nickelson’s 4-year-old daughter Jaycee, mother Angie Maness, grandmother Reba Boaz and cousin Jeremy Sikorski also helped celebrate the safe return of the Port St. Lucie soldier and his comrades.
About 300 members of the Guard’s 3rd Battalion, 116th Field Artillery Regiment were honored at a homecoming celebration at the Florida Strawberry Festival grounds. The Plant City-based troops provided security at various military installations in Qatar, a country bordering Saudi Arabia.
The Middle East deployment was the battalion’s second since 2005-06, when it was in Iraq and Kuwait, also with no casualties.
Except for a four-day Christmas pass, the Guardsmen hadn’t been home since February.
Several Plant City residents who didn’t have family members in the Guard came out to show their support, such as Sue Moos. Her son, Robert, is in the Army and spent 13 months in Iraq so she can identify with those with family members who spend time in harm’s way.
“I want to show them that we care about them and love them for what they do. Without them and others like them, we wouldn’t enjoy this great country we have,” Moos said.
Gov. Rick Scott was among the dignitaries who praised not only the soldiers but their families for the time they spent without their loved ones.
After a brief ceremony, the soldiers reunited with their families.
Sgt. Ryan Welch cradled his 8-month-old son Jason, who he’d seen only for a few days after birth and during his Christmas leave.
“It feels great to see my son,” said Welch, who lives in Bradenton.
His wife Natalie beamed.
“I can’t believe he’s home. We missed him so much,” she said.
Omar Cotto spent the first few moments after he was dismissed from his unit with his wife Kamaja and their children Annalise, 3, and Mykila, 7.
“There are no words that can express how I feel right now,” the Orlando resident said.
“It just feels good to be with my family again.”