Ready for the 1140th

Monday, February 28, 2005

PERRYVILLE, Mo. -- Friends, relatives and spouses spent Sunday decorating the roads and businesses of Perryville with signs of support in readiness for the arrival of the 1140th Engineer Battalion.

The Flieg family erected a large banner reading "Often tested, never bested" in front of the Missouri National Guard armory. Parents Mark and Jo, and brother Brian were getting ready for Sgt. Jeremy Flieg to return home from Iraq.

"It's been a long year," Mark Flieg said. "There's going to be a lot of emotional adjustment."

The soldiers are expected to arrive in Southeast Missouri on Tuesday. The battalion was deployed to Iraq last February after a one-month stay at Fort Riley, Kan. The battalion returned to the United States last week. The battalion also has companies in Jackson, Farmington, Sikeston and Cape Girardeau; many in the Perryville company are from Jackson.

Diane Kohm, coordinator of the welcoming, was busy instructing the group of about 25, mostly women, on where and how to erect the signs, banners and yellow ribbon that will be on display along the road and in front of local businesses. The armory was already covered with hand-lettered signs, the doorway flanked with U.S. flags.

Kohm's husband, Sgt. Paul Kohm Jr., is one of the members of the battalion scheduled to return. Community support has been abundant for the families of the soldiers, Diane Kohm said.

"You would not believe the bonding," she said. "So many friendships have blossomed from this. No words can describe how grateful we are for the community's support. ... Just look at the people here."

Debbie Bickings, a Cape Girardeau hairdresser, said her customers have been "overabundantly supportive" of her son, Sgt. Justin Bickings. She and daughter Amy stapled handmade welcome signs along U.S. 61 while passing motorists shouted their support.

Nicole Ritch was also busy hanging signs, glittered posterboard ones, along the front corridor of the armory. She is eagerly waiting for her husband, Jeremy, to return home. She stressed the importance of female bonding in the face of departing husbands, sons and brothers.

"I feel obligated to offer my services to women going through it now," Ritch said. "If I hear someone's husband is leaving, I offer my name and telephone number."

Ritch, who has a 3-year-old son, said the hardest part of her husband's absence has been learning to be a single mother. Now that he's returning, she and her son are excited.

"He's been telling everyone, even drive-through workers, that his daddy's coming home," Ritch said.

Kohm said that the soldiers are expected anywhere from 6 to 8 a.m. Tuesday, but she would have the armory open by 4 a.m. A brief public ceremony is planned at the armory around 8 or 9 a.m., depending on time of the soldiers' arrival. The handmade signs and ribbons will greet the soldiers as they drive through Perryville.

"It's important to honor what they've done for us," Kohm said. "The signs let them know how proud we are, and that we're glad they're coming home safe."

nstanfield@semissourian.com

335-6611 extension 127

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