Celebrating a hero's safe homecoming

The soldier has been home twice since that day in September 2011 when a bomb blew apart his truck in Afghanistan.

But this time is different for Army Spc. Travis Michael Pittman of Monticello. After four years of duty he's coming home to stay — if the weather cooperates. And the airlines.

His overnight flight from Hawaii to Dallas is uneventful. The next leg to Chicago is not.

His flight is almost canceled because the pilot is double-booked. The airline finally works it out.

Then, when his plane nears Chicago, dense fog forces it to circle endlessly.

What if I die now, he thinks. After everything, this is what's going to get me.

Eventually the plane lands, and he makes his connection to Champaign-Urbana.

Hungry and bleary-eyed after 13 hours of traveling, Pittman, 23, wants to see his family and get some rest.

His mom has a few other things in mind.

Time for something elaborate

Donna Pittman has been preparing for this day for weeks.

She's ordered banners, yard signs, 200 tiny American flags and red, white and blue balloons. She's hired a photographer to take a welcome-home photo. She's put a notice in the Piatt County Journal-Republican asking family and friends to join her at Willard Airport for a welcome-home celebration.

She arranged small family celebrations when Travis Pittman came home for short visits in the past, but she never had enough notice for anything elaborate.

For this one, she is spurred in part by the experience of his best friend, Greg McCandless of Clinton, who served with Travis in the 25th Infantry.

When McCandless returned last September after his four-year tour was up, his grandmother picked him up at the airport.

No big celebration. No banners or balloons.

"It sort of hurt me," Donna Pittman says. "When they come home and they've served their four years, some of them are traumatized. They've got to be appreciated for what they've done."

She is up at the crack of dawn on this windy, gun-metal gray Wednesday, posting signs by 7 a.m. around the courthouse square in Monticello, in friends' yards and at the entrance to town on Monticello Road. Piatt County Sheriff David Hunt has agreed to lead Travis in a police escort back to town as part of his hero's welcome.

"These guys are military. They deserve a good welcome home," says Hunt, who served in the Air Force from 1982-88.

Ten relatives and friends join Pittman and her husband, Leonard Pittman, at Willard around 10 a.m.

Donna Pittman is excited — and anxious "until I see him get off that plane," she says.

Things have a way of changing at the last minute in the military. She's kept a nervous eye on the news out of Ukraine these past couple of weeks, as her son can still be called back to active duty for four years if the military needs him or if there's a natural disaster.

"He's home and ready to start the next phase of his life," she says.

No more long-distance

Among those at the airport is Travis Pittman's girlfriend, Sarah Wells, 19, of Monticello. They met before he enlisted and started dating around Christmas 2012, when he was home for a brief leave.

The distance has been hard: "We Skype every day," she says.

Wells texts him throughout the morning. He hasn't had much sleep.

"I don't think he has any idea" about the surprise welcome, she says.

Wells' mother is there, holding balloons. So is Donna Pittman's sister-in-law, Lynda Pittman-Hryhorysak, who takes photos and hands out flags.

Cousin Cassandra Zook, 17, holds a sign reading, "Welcome Home finally! We missed you. Travis Pittman, our favorite soldier." She's taken off school (legally) to be there.

"She gets good grades. I don't mind," says her mom, Laurel Zook.

Every few minutes someone checks the airport radar screen, which shows the plane inching its way down from Chicago to Savoy.

The crowd grows to 18, then 25, and finally more than 30 just before the plane lands.

Sarah Wells' brother Matt, 20, and twin sister Emily, 19, hold up a giant welcome home banner with Travis Pittman's picture in full uniform and a purple heart insignia.

Donna Pittman turns to Wells as the plane pulls up to the gate: "Sarah, I can see it. He's coming right at us!"

Surprise!

A surprised Travis Pittman comes through the security checkpoint and is greeted with a bear hug from his mom and girlfriend. Next up are his dad and grandfather.

He gets handshakes and hugs from friends and relatives. He kisses Sarah and talks politely to townspeople who come up to introduce themselves. He poses for photos as curious passengers and the flight crew walk by and smile.

"I can't believe I'm home," Pittman says. "It's great to have everyone here. I had no idea. I thought maybe a couple of people would be here. I love everyone for showing up."

Donna Pittman scans the crowd for McCandless, who is driving in from Bloomington. But he's had trouble finding the airport. He arrives a few minutes late, and Travis Pittman gives him a big man-hug.

"It's good to have my best friend back," McCandless says.

A painful memory

McCandless, 22, was in the truck right behind Pittman's on Sept. 11, 2011, when their convoy was struck by the improvised explosive device, or IED, in Afghanistan. They had just gone out on a security mission.

The force of the blast blew the engine completely over the truck and left a 10-by-10-foot crater in the road. It also killed the Afghan soldiers in the truck in front of Pittman's.

Pittman was in the gunner's hatch atop his truck. Luckily, he was wearing his safety harness and "didn't go flying out of the truck," McCandless says.

McCandless wasn't sure how badly Pittman was hurt. He and others in the unit worked quickly to get him back to their base, where he was stabilized and airlifted out by chopper 15 minutes later.

He had two broken vertebrae in his back, but nothing life-threatening. After recuperating at a hospital in Germany, he was sent back to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, where he's been stationed ever since.

"We've been together since my day one in the unit," McCandless says. "This is the longest period of time we've ever spent away from each other."

He was determined to be here for Pittman's homecoming.

"I think it's important to feel like everything he did was for something, worth something, appreciated."

Looking to future

Now that he's home, Travis Pittman says he'd like to go to the University of Illinois. Any other plans?

"Sleep. Relax," he says.

As for his mother, she is relieved. And happy.

"When you're a military family, this is the best present ever — to get him home safe."

Out in the parking lot, Pittman loads his duffel bag into a white Mustang decorated with a flag and "Welcome Home Travis" in green neon paint.

Hunt leads a convoy of a dozen cars back to Monticello — past the welcome-home sign at the edge of town, past the middle school and subdivisions and century-old houses on Washington Street, past the East End Tavern and the newspaper office and Main Street Pub, twice around the courthouse square and then, finally, home.

As they pass, eight workers wave from the courthouse steps. A man stands on a corner, applauding and giving a giant thumbs-up.

Insurance agent Scott Burnsmier served in the Illinois Army National Guard and is also part of a town committee that honors area servicemen and women. The committee has set up four large signs at each entrance into town with the names of all 58 active-duty military from Monticello High School.

"I get it. I understand," Burnsmier says. "One of the most humbling things to watch is somebody coming home and thanking them for their service. We can never repay them."

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