A patriotic weekend at the University of Montana came to a proud end on Sunday with an ceremony that honored returning combat veterans with the Montana National Guard.

After a Friday unveiling of a campus fallen soldier memorial and a Saturday Grizzly football game dedicated to soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 260 soldiers of Bravo Company 1-163rd Cavalry Regiment and Echo Company 145th Forward Support Company were recognized in a formal event at the University Center's ballroom.

Although details of the soldiers' yearlong mission in Iraq were not shared nor talked about in detail, the western Montana and Helena area soldiers experienced frequent mortar attacks during their mission, officially called Overseas Contingency Operation.

Each and every soldier from the two companies returned home unscathed, said Tim Crowe, spokesperson for the Montana National Guard.

Guest speaker and UM head football coach Robin Pflugrad thanked the soldiers for their work, which "allows us all to do what we do."

How combat soldiers and Grizzly football players train and apply what they know are not so different, Pflugrad said.

"We don't huddle very often; we are a quick-pace system and we do it all by signals," he said. And the team, its players and coaches, live by four mottos or oaths, ideals which soldiers know something about.

"I will hustle, I will know what to do, I will display courage, and I will care about my teammates," Pflugrad said. "I'm not sure it's so different for you all."

Lauded for their courage, integrity, heroism and faithful, steadfast service, each and every one of the citizen soldiers was applauded and among the many awards was given a Defender of Freedom Certificate, a commemorative coin, and an American flag.

Smiling proudly, Tannia Stebbins watched as her son-in-law Thomas Clement, a Helena soldier, received his awards.

"It was a very scary time while he was gone," said Stebbins. "He left behind his wife- my daughter - and their three children, ages 5, 4 and 3.

"We are so relieved he is home and that he's the same happy-go-lucky person he was when he left for Iraq," she said. "We are so happy to have him back and this whole yellow ribbon program is awesome. It's so supportive of the soldiers and their families."

Dave Christensen, a 25-year-old soldier from Kalispell, said he will likely serve another tour of duty if need be.

"For me personally, this was a growth and career development opportunity," he said. "There definitely were some dangerous times but our training is what helped us out."

Transitioning back to the life he left with the Kalispell Fire Department is going smoothly, thanks to co-workers and to his contacts and friends in the Montana National Guard.

"Transitions are always difficult," Christensen said, "but we have a lot of support."

With two deployments behind him, Doug Longfellow of Townsend was eager to get on with civilian life with his wife, Vanessa.

With Thanksgiving around the corner and Montana's big-game hunting season under way, the 33-year-old soldier couldn't plan a better re-entry.

"It feels great to be home," he said, "and the transition was easier knowing that I had my job waiting for me when I got back."

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