WINDSOR LOCKS -- Nine Connecticut Army National Guard members returned from Afghanistan on Tuesday, just in time for the holidays.
Their families and friends waited with cameras in hand at the National Guard's Windsor Locks Army Aviation Readiness Center, which is around the corner from Bradley International Airport.
When the soldiers walked through the doors, the room erupted in cheers.
Ruthie Reyes immediately pounced on her son, specialist Ricardo Reyes. "You saw how I charged at him. I've been dying for this day to come so I could just grab him and give him a hug," she said. "This is the best Christmas I can ever receive right now, just having my son home."
Reyes' grandmother hugged him with tears streaming down her face. "Just a great, great feeling to see him and hold him and now that he's safe and sound," said Barbara Scheiner.
Further into the room, a wave of pride washed over a group of Stonington High School students as they met their patriotic pen pal, Col. John Whitford.
Whitford's high school classmate and friend, Caroline Chapman, is the coordinator of Stonington's career center. She set up the correspondence at the urging of students, including senior Charlie Buxton.
"There was a lot of buildup obviously because we've been talking to him through Facebook for several months now, so it felt like I already knew him," said Buxton.
"They've just been sending me pictures and gifts and food, so it's been very nice," said Whitford of his pen pals.
Whitford and his soldiers are part of a special engineering unit. They helped deconstruct and consolidate different bases in Afghanistan as part of the drawdown of U.S. troops. The mission went well, according to Whitford, but it wasn't easy.
"We did receive some indirect fire and it was still a bit scary, so we had to, you know, be very vigilant in not only our mission, but also knowing what the enemy's capabilities are," said Whitford.
Now that soldiers are safely back on U.S. soil, they're turning their attention to the holidays, though Christmas may have come early this year.
"It's been so long. I'm just happy to be home," said Reyes, holding his nephew who was born while he was overseas.
Not all Connecticut National Guard members are home for the holidays. About two dozen servicemen and women are currently deployed in Southwest Asia.