Sgt. Brandon Watson of Barberton was overwhelmed with happiness as he approached his wife, Autumn.
Her eyes filled with tears of joy as he reached out to embrace her. Their four children buzzed with excitement, and one screamed out “Daddy’s home!”
Hundreds of people on Saturday afternoon filled the bleachers of the University of Akron’s Rhodes Arena with pride, tears and excitement as Akron-Canton residents welcomed home about 180 soldiers of the Ohio Army National Guard’s 1484th Transportation Company after a one-year tour in Afghanistan.
The unit disembarked from buses and marched into the arena to cheers and music from the guard’s military band.
Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, Canton Mayor William J. Healy II and U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Copley Township, were among the dignitaries that greeted the unit.
Watson, a Barberton police officer and a member of the 1484th Transportation Company, was greeted by more than 40 relatives and friends who gathered to celebrate the homecoming.
Barberton police Chief Vincent G. Marber welcomed the hometown hero.
“It hasn’t been the same without him,” Marber said. “We managed, but we missed him. We are very proud to see him return.”
Watson’s wife waited along with their children: Brennen, Preston, Bailee and Breea. The three oldest proudly waved flags in the air as the ceremony began.
“It was a long year, we are so excited to have him home. The kids have missed him so much. It has been tough, but we are very proud of him.” Autumn Watson said.
Brandon Watson’s aunt, Debra Watson, wore a yellow-ribbon pendant around her neck during the Green-based unit’s tours of Iraq and Afghanistan.
That kept her nephew close to her heart while he was deployed.
“I never took it off while he was away,” the Barberton woman said. “The yellow began to chip away during the first tour in Iraq and the very last piece [of yellow] came off two weeks ago. That is when I knew he was safe and on his way home.
“Brandon was one of the 18 Bronze Star awardees, for working with the Afghan army. It was hard. His first tour was right after he had been married. This time he had to leave four kids. It was a struggle, but we are so proud.”
Akron’s Christian Brannon, whose wife, Denise, is a member of the 1484th, waited patiently outside the arena. He said he had a rough year, playing the single-parent role while his wife was away.
“I was lucky in a sense,” he said. “I was laid off prior to her deployment so I was able to be there for our children. It was very hard and we all miss her so much.”
Denise Brannon’s mother, Terri Barauskas of Akron, was emotional as she spoke about the past year.
“It was very hard on everyone. I am so proud of Christian. He really kept it together for the children. We are so happy to see Denise come home today,” she said.
No one from the 1484th Transportation Company was killed during the yearlong stay near Kandahar, Afghanistan, Watson said. The unit, known as the Red Dawgs, was involved in convoy security and delivering supplies and received several awards during its service.
Sgt. Michael Barkey, 22, a Lawrence Township member of the unit, was killed in Iraq in 2004. Eight others were wounded.