“WELCOME HOME, AARON!” read one sign.
“Thank you, Aaron! God bless you!”
Shouts of joy and thanks echoed down the hall.
“Welcome home, son!”
Tears ran, flashes burst from cameras and cheers grew from the crowd at the South Bend Regional Airport arrivals terminal Saturday afternoon.
Sgt. Aaron Yoder, specialized search dog handler with the U.S. Army and Concord High School graduate, came home to family, friends and the public waiting to greet him.
As he was wheeled through the terminal gate, his cast on his right leg showed that he didn’t come home completely unscathed, but the soldier is healing, according to family and friends. Yoder took a bullet protecting his dog, Bart, while in Afghanistan on April 9.
The terminal was lined with flags, as well as the outer sidewalks of the airport. The flags were held by the public and those involved with the Indiana Patriot Guard, a volunteer organization that provides motorcycle motorcades for homecoming veterans and veteran funerals, according to Senior Ride Captain Dennis Francis.
“It only took a few weeks to organized,” Francis said. “We talked with the family over dinner, and his mom said she would like to plan something for his homecoming. We said we could take care of that.”
The Indiana Patriot Guard is composed of motorcycle groups from all over the region, Francis said. He sent out the announcement that they were having a homecoming, and many riders showed up.
“We’re made up of many different organizations, and we’re from all over,” he said, gesturing to many of the bikers waiting in the terminal for Yoder’s arrival. “But we’re all here for the same purpose. We’re bringing home a hero. This is just some recognition for the sacrifice he made.”
Francis said the organization only does this welcoming for veterans coming home from combat zones.
“Most of the time, we’re on the backside of the airport, welcoming our heroes home in caskets,” he said. “This time, we’re celebrating with him. This is a party.”
Many of the riders in the Indiana Patriot Guard are veterans or family of current and past members of the military. Linda Grevenstuk, from New Paris, said she recently welcomed her son home from combat, and she was excited to hold a flag and welcome Yoder home.
“I’m honored that we’re bringing him home alive,” Grevenstuk said. “I’m glad we had as many as we did turn out. I mean, they’re fighting for our freedom over there. We need to support out troops regardless of opinions.”
More than 350 motorcycles and other vehicles formed the motorcade that transported Yoder from the airport to the Osolo Township Fire Department. Both Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore and Elkhart First Baptist Pastor John Blodgett spoke at the brief welcoming ceremony.
“I want to thank you as mayor of Elkhart on behalf of everyone in the city,” Moore said. “There are a lot of Aaron Yoders out there standing guard for us. Thank you again, and welcome home.”
Blodgett, who pastors at the church where Yoder’s family attends, spoke and prayed for Yoder.
“There’s a lot of your church family here,” he said. “We are so thankful that God spared your life. Because of that, he’s let your life cross a lot of other pathways.”
Yoder, touched by the emotion of the crowd gathered, spoke briefly.
“Thank you to everyone,” he said. “I really appreciate it.”
Blodgett said that Yoder can serve as an example for the community.
“I can’t put into words the feelings I have — I’m thankful he’s alive,” Blodgett said. “The community can learn (from Aaron) to depend on each other and learn from his story as a testament of strength.”
After the words at the Osolo station, the Indiana Patriot Guard led Yoder and his family home. They passed the Concord Fire Department on their route, which displayed a large American flag. The streets leading up to his home were also lined with American flags.
If you are interested in joining or donating to the Indiana Patriot Guard, visit www.inpatriotguard.org for more information.
“WELCOME HOME, AARON!” read one sign.
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