Escorted by a police cruiser with its siren wailing, the first busload of National Guardsmen returned home Monday evening after serving 10 months in Iraq with the Fighting 69th Infantry Regiment.
As soon as Sgt. John "Van" Rogers of Williamsville got off the bus in front of the Connecticut Street Armory, his daughter, Alanna, 17, emerged from the crowd and embraced him and wouldn't let go. Then his mother, Madie Robbs, hugged him.
"All your prayers were with me," Rogers told her. "Where's my son?"
Alonzo, 18, embraced his father.
"It took all I had to go back home, boy," Rogers told him. Then he pointed proudly at his Combat Action Badge.
Rogers' wife, Lucia, finally got her turn.
After serving in the military for 27 years as a cook, Rogers suddenly found himself assigned as a gunner on the lead Humvee of his unit's daily convoys in Iraq.
He was among 80 members of the area's 152nd Engineers Battalion who were attached to the famous 69th Infantry.
"I will say this," Rogers said. "I was the oldest gunner -- 56 years old. I was on top of a Humvee with a machine gun, making sure my commander and crew were all right inside. I was the eyes and ears of the battalion. If I heard gunfire, I let them know, and they radioed back and let everyone else know."
Rogers, who will return to his job as a supervisor at Opportunities Unlimited in Niagara Falls, was asked by a television reporter how the war in Iraq is going.
"The people over there are trying to have their freedom," he said. "When I used to see little kids, some of them maimed -- it was devastating. My thing was, anything we could do to make them free like we back home are, that was my goal. We're teaching them (to fight the insurgents) but it's going to take time."
Staff Sgt. Aaron Livergood of Lockport was greeted by 18 family members who had come in a Mac Limo van containing tables overflowing with home-cooked dinner.
"We're going to take care of him," said a cousin, Josh Livergood, "riding home in style."
A second bus from Fort Dix, N.J. will arrive Thursday. Many other National Guardsmen are renting vehicles and driving home to Western New York.