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Soldiers, surprises and coming home

Haydee Anderson and granddaughter Yasminea, 10, wait eagerly for Sgt. James Vargas Saturday night at the Duluth Airport. A group of about 100 people gathered to welcome the 60 soldiers of 312 Engineer Company back home after a year of deployment. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com1 / 4
Aubrey Vargas enthusiastically hugs her husband Sgt. James Vargas upon his return to Duluth Saturday night. The 312th Engineer Company had been deployed for a year, mostly in Kuwait. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com2 / 4
Jennilee Anderson clasps hands with returning soldier SFC Dan Arens while waiting for her husband, Sgt. Timothy Anderson, to come up the stairs at the Duluth Airport after a year away with the 312th Engineer Company. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com3 / 4
Timothy Anderson and his 5-year-old daughter Johanna embrace each other after Anderson surprised her at Queen of Peace school Monday afternoon. Anderson's Army reserve unit came back Saturday evening. Anderson and his wife, Jennilee, enjoyed a quiet weekend at a hotel before surprising their two children. Jamie Lund/ CHECK OUT REUNION VIDEO ON WWW.PINEJOURNAL.COM4 / 4

"I'm so nervous! It's like going on a first date," said Jennilee Anderson, wife of Sergeant Timothy Anderson. The woman seated next to her laughed and nodded in agreement. She had been trying to figure out what to wear since she found out when her husband was coming home. Both women laughingly acknowledged that the men probably don't care anyway.

It was Saturday, and Anderson was anxiously waiting for her husband of 12 years in the lobby of the Duluth Airport with 100 or so other families of the 312th Army Reserve Engineer Company, based in Duluth.

The company deployed to Kuwait last spring and families and friends were excited to see them after a year away from home. The soldiers are horizontal engineers, also known as large equipment operators, according to Jennilee. They do construction work, such as building roads and airfields.

The Andersons moved to Cloquet from Duluth while Tim was deployed. They looked at the house during his four-day leave and decided it felt like home. Jennilee went through the homebuying process by herself. She also moved her two children — 11-year-old Robert, who has autism, and Johanna, 5 — plus two dogs and the family cat with some help from family members.

"I miss having somebody else with me," Jennilee said wistfully. "Just to spend time with, make dinners at home and watch TV together."

Some of the families had been waiting at the airport since 3:30 p.m. Saturday, but the majority began trickling in around 5 p.m.

Several families carried homemade signs welcoming their soldier home. Some took photos with their signs while waiting, others fussed over children.

Aubrey Vargas, 24, was waiting for her husband, Sergeant James Vargas, along with his daughter, Yasminea, 10, and his mother, Haydee Anderson, all from Cloquet. Aubrey's twin sister, Aerial Mandoli, laughed as she talked about how anxious her twin had been as the days drew closer to her husband's homecoming.

"She would say "Aerial, he's going to be home in two weeks!"" Mandoli said. "Then it was "Aerial, he's going to be home in three days, two days, 24 hours."

The young family had only moved into their new home two months before James had been deployed.

Anderson was brimming with excitement at the thought of seeing her son again.

"We talked on the phone," Anderson said. "But after his [minor] surgery I insisted on video chatting so I could see he really was fine."

Yasminea walked up and down the stairs wearing off energy during the three-hour wait at the airport. There had been confusion about the time, so the family had arrived several hours early.

"In the beginning it was really hard," Yasminea said. "It got easier after a while. I miss his hugs."

Aubrey said she coped by keeping busy, talking to her family and spending a lot of time with her mom who lives nearby. She is looking forward to celebrating a belated honeymoon and hopes to grow the family now that her husband is home.

As the families were ushered to one end of the lobby area, the plane had been spotted landing by several people. Soon a bus headed toward the airport. Friends and family members strained to catch sight of the soldiers and patiently watched their bored little tots.

Soon cheering and clapping erupted downstairs near the luggage carousel and seconds later the soldiers ran across the airport and up the stairs to their loved ones.

After they fell into formation there was a very short official speech and they were released to eager families. Chaos ensued as the crowd cheered and raced towards their loved ones. Hugs, photos and excited talking took place, and then it was over ... almost.

One soldier was off to surprise his wife and mother at a friend's wedding in Superior.

Specialist Andrew Knight, 24, of Barnum was met at the airport by his best friend and his wife of a few hours. The bride and groom swept into the airport and spirited Knight off to their wedding reception in Superior, unbeknownst to Knight's mother and wife, who were both there.

"It's a once in a lifetime thing," said Andrew. He wanted to make it special for Jessica. He added that he was thrilled, nervous and really excited to see how his wife would react. With the help of his friends and in spite of living in this age of social media, he managed to pull it off.

"I thought I was dreaming," Jessica said with a laugh. "I looked at my mother-in-law and said, "Is this real"?"

Another soldier planned to surprise his kids at school on Monday.

Sergeant Tim Anderson and Jennilee enjoyed a quiet weekend at a local hotel before surprising their children at their schools. They surprised Robert first at his school in Hermantown. Then they went to Queen of Peace where an assembly was planned to surprise Johanna (aka JJ).

After the elementary students were seated, Tim came out of the parish office behind the students.

When Tim got to the front row where his daughter was sitting, she jumped up and into his arms. He held her tightly as she snuggled happily into his neck for several minutes. The children sang "America the Beautiful" as the father and daughter just hugged in front of them.

Jennilee stood in the back with a few family members and watched her husband and daughter. She had a huge smile and shed a few happy tears as they hugged.

After a television interview, Tim tried to set Johanna down but she kept holding on.

Johanna said she missed her dad while he was in Kuwait working, but most of all she missed his hugs.

"I expected something, but not that much," Tim said about the welcome at the airport Saturday evening. He was surprised by the welcome banners and the excitement of the cheering crowd. Jennilee had kept him involved with family decisions and updated on everyday life.

"I am beyond words," said Tim, about how he felt Jennilee had handled everything while he was gone. Jennilee is also the Family Readiness Group Leader for the 312th Engineer Company. She helps families find resources. If a family car breaks down, for example, the military has resources to help get it repaired. Or if a child needs a tutor, Jennilee helps them connect with the military tutoring program.

Tim said it finally hit him he was actually going back home when he was on the plane. He started feeling anxious and a little nervous as he anticipated the family reunion after a year away.

After the excitement was over Johanna went back to class and her parents left.

"It's time to go home," said Tim, adding that he was looking forward to seeing what his wife had done with their new home, as well as finally sleeping in his own bed.