They were welcomed home like heroes.
In a convoy of four buses escorted by siren-blaring patrol cars and police motorcycles, the Marines and sailors of India Company of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment returned safely to an ecstatic crowd of hundreds Thursday morning after an arduous seven-month tour in Iraq.
"They're coming!" cried out Patty Fredendall, 43, of Holley, as the buses carrying her boys -- Lance Cpls. Eric and Daniel Fredendall -- made its way down flag-lined Porter Avenue and beneath an honor guard formed by two Buffalo Fire Department ladder trucks hoisting a giant Old Glory.
With tears welling in her eyes, Fredendall jumped up and down next to her own bus, which she had chartered to ferry 34 relatives to the anxiously anticipated reunion. "This is the most wonderful day of my life," Fredendall grinned, "second only to the day they were born."
The men of India Company had been called to duty in January in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and were deployed to Iraq in March.
They saw both tragedy and success.
India Company lost one corpsman, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeffrey L. Wiener of Long Island. Six were wounded in a devastating roadside bomb attack. A seventh was shot by a sniper while on patrol.
But they also helped get the city of Hit in the troubled Al Anbar province under control. They collectively detained 116 insurgents and uncovered more than 160 bombs and at least 150 weapons caches, according to Capt. Kevin Klostermann of Lancaster.
"There wasn't a mission they couldn't do," he said proudly.
But Thursday, Klostermann's mind was far from the lurking insurgents and the stifling desert heat that had consumed the last seven months of his life as he met, for the first time, his 5-month-old baby daughter, Karah.
"Breathtaking," he said of the moment he first laid eyes on the sleepy-eyed baby girl. "She looks just like my wife."
Minutes earlier, the men of India Company had filed out of their buses to an explosion of cheers and applause. As the Marine Corps anthem played over a loudspeaker, the Marines and corpsmen marched past their loved ones who shouted their names. Only some of the men managed to keep stoic looks on their faces.
The men gathered in formation on the green outside the reserve center, craning their necks to spot their families amid the sea of loved ones -- too excited to bother to listen to the lengthy proclamations sent by local politicians.
> Wait is over
"Dismissed," the commanding officer declared. And suddenly, wives and girlfriends, mothers and fathers, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even a couple of pet dogs surged forward, seeking out their beloved brave men they had missed so much.
"We're happy to be in Buffalo!" Lance Cpl. Tomas Venegas, 22, of Waverly, said as his parents and sisters, who started driving out to the reserve center at 3 that morning, smothered him with hugs.
"It was crazy!" he gushed about the welcome home celebration that greeted India Company. "We heard what was supposed to happen, but we were all jumping."
Sarah Williams, 24, of East Aurora, could hardly hold back her tears as she showed Cpl. Rob Mitchell his 3-month-old daughter, Emily, dressed in a pretty pink dress and a tiny camouflage hat to meet her father. "I can't believe he's finally here," she said
Mitchell, 25, speechless as he held baby Emily in his huge hands, touched his forehead to hers as she reached up to touch his chin. "It's amazing -- overwhelming. I've been counting the days for nine months."
Among those on hand for the welcoming party were those fellow Marines wounded in battle and sent home early to recuperate.
"I hadn't had a chance to talk to many of them, so it was nice to catch up with them," said Lance Cpl. Jim Caflisch, 23, of Jamestown, who was shot in the backside on Aug. 22, just two weeks before the end of India Company's time in Iraq. "That was quite a welcome," he said.
By noon, most of the families had whisked their Marines away in their cars, to big welcome home bashes, pizza parties and relaxed evenings in the comfort of home.
But lagging behind in the gorgeous summerlike weather was 1st Sgt. Richard Oddi, 43, of Pittsburgh. Oddi, who had been reassigned from his usual unit to join India Company in February, sat on the lush green lawn with his arm around his daughter, Stephanie, 12, and watched his youngest, James, 3, toddle around the grass.
> Fitting weather
"Beautiful," Oddi said, taking in the gentle sunshine. "It's surreal. I'm thinking, Is this really happening? The last time I was here there was snow on the ground and the lake was frozen over."
The Oddi family all agreed that the unseasonably warm weather seemed a fitting welcome for the men of India Company.
"But it wouldn't matter if it was raining or snow," said Mary Oddi, his wife. "To see them, to touch them, to hold them in your arms . . . It's been a long year."
She then wrapped her arms tightly around her husband's middle. "I got him home," she said softly. "I got him home."