The UNI-Dome was the site of hugs and handshakes, tears and toddlers on Saturday as about 120 soldiers from the Iowa National Guard returned home from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan. Friends and family members of the soldiers filled one side of the UNI-Dome and erupted in applause when the unit was dismissed.

Sergeant Kyle Statema was coming back from his third tour of duty, but he says homecoming ceremonies never lose their meaning. “My heart races, every time,” he says. “…I really don’t know how to explain it.” Statema’s wife, Allison, says having her husband away from home was difficult.

“It’s been really tough and it’s amazing to see him again,” she says. “I’m way excited to have him home.” Sergeant Tom Sage of Waterloo was coming back from his third tour, and he says the welcome-home ceremony was still overwhelming,

“It’s been a long six months,” Sage says. “Pizza and beer — that’s all that I ask for.” Two of Sage’s daughters are also in the Iowa National Guard and were on hand for Saturday’s ceremony. Sage’s daughter Sharon says that having her dad home will make for a very special birthday.

“It’s the most amazing thing ever, He came back five years ago on my 18th birthday,” she said Saturday. “And then my birthday’s tomorrow and five years later, at 23, it’s going to be the greatest birthday ever.” Sage’s other daughter, Erica, was on guard duty this weekend.

“It’s just really emotional. I had drills this weekend, so I was lucky enough that we all got to come out and say, ‘Hi,’ to everybody and welcome the soldiers back,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “It’s just awesome to have my dad home.” Saturday’s ceremony at the UNI-Dome was one of more than 30 that will be taking place across the state as the Guard units return from Afghanistan.

The UNI-Dome will again host welcome-home ceremonies today and tomorrow. Early this afternoon in Coralville, about 110 soldiers will be welcomed home in a ceremony at the Marriott Conference Center.

By Jesse Gavin, KCNZ, Cedar Falls