The road home for U.S. Army Sgt. Aaron Yoder of Elkhart was lined with reminders of why America is the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Yoder, who had been recovering for more than two months in a Texas Army hospital after he was shot in the leg April 9 during a gun fight in southern Afghanistan, was greeted Saturday afternoon by more than 350 people at South Bend Regional Airport, a crowd that included a proud contingent of Indiana Patriot Guard Riders on more than 130 motorcycles.
Yoder was shot while protecting Sgt. Bart, his bomb-sniffing black lab comrade-in-arms and buddy. “Dog handlers are some of the bravest soldiers in Afghanistan. They are often the point man on patrol, leading the soldiers as their dogs check for roadside bombs. Taliban commanders are offering a bounty to their snipers if they shoot brave dogs of war,” says Military.com in a video that honors Aaron and Bart.
Aaron and Bart were separated when Yoder was med-evaced out of Afghanistan, but were reunited May 3 in Texas while Yoder recovered.
The 2005 Concord High School graduate was greeted by his family and then wheeled into the airport terminal, where his many greeters proudly displayed the red, white and blue, and cheered “welcome home” and “thank you.” There were also profound moments of emotional silence, many hugs, handshakes and tears.
South Bend and Elkhart police and sheriff departments helped the Patriot Guard escort Yoder and his lengthy procession to the Osolo Fire Department as crowds of people gathered along the S.R. 23 and Cleveland Road route to wave their thanks and snap photographs of the visitor.
Yoder was honored in a short ceremony at Osolo as Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore praised the “great entourage” and “great turnout” before prayers were offered, more thanks were shouted out, more hugs given and more tears shed.
Patriot Guard Rider Tom Van De Voorde of Osceola said that he felt a sense of pride in his country and for those who serve, and solemnly said he had “unfortunately” been to “quite a few” homecomings, “but not with this result. This is what we hope for. We do it for the families,” he said.
Gena Darling, whose family has known Aaron for a long time and attends First Baptist Church on C.R. 17 in Bristol with him, said that “it’s great” to be able to greet her friend and hero. “My husband was in the Army in Vietnam, and we’ve come to have a whole new respect for people that are serving now,” she said.
Tim Dalenberg of Bristol also attends First Baptist Church with Aaron, and was at Osolo Fire Department to welcome him home. “I’m overwhelmed. I’m just overwhelmed at what God has done in bringing him home to us. I’m proud of him. I’m proud of all of our soldiers. I’m glad that he’s home, and I’m glad for his parents.”
Kathy Kazmierzak is a Blue Star Mother who has experienced her own war-related anxieties. “Oh my gosh, it’s very emotional, and I’m so proud of what he’s done, and what they all have done,” she said. “I am just so overwrought today. My son was in Iraq a few years ago, and it just brings back the memories of what they do. Right now I feel for Aaron’s family, and what all the other soldiers that are left behind in Afghanistan are going through.”
“You love on him,” exclaimed one Patriot at the Osolo ceremony, which was short and sweet because it was time for Aaron to go home with his mother, Dawn, sitting next to him in the front seat.