SEBRING - Just in time to see - or perhaps to be - Santa Claus, the soldiers of 3rd Battalion, 116th Field Artillery are back.
The guard spent 10 months training in Mississippi, and then deployed in Qatar before returning to Camp Shelby on Sunday.
Then they boarded buses for Florida, arriving Tuesday morning at armories in Plant City, Arcadia, and in the case of Highlands County soldiers, to the Lake Wales armory next to the airport.
Plant City civic leaders and the community helped raise $34,000 to pay for buses to travel from Mississippi on a four-day pass.
They were given leave, but had to provide their own transportation if they wanted to go home. Former state Rep. Rich Glorioso, state Rep. Dan Raulerson and the American Legion led a drive to raise money to pay for the battalion's trip home and back.
"It would be one thing if they were still overseas, but for them to be a few states away and not be home for Christmas, it just wasn't right," Glorioso, a Plant City resident and retired Air Force colonel, told the Tampa Tribune.
Gov. Rick Scott encouraged Florida Retail Federation members including Wal-Mart, Publix and Walgreens to contribute $15,000. However, most donations came from individuals in the Central Florida area, Glorioso said.
Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa from the Florida National Guard Public Affairs office said nearly 300 soldiers arrived Sunday afternoon at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. During their mission, the unit provided security at several U.S. military installations in Qatar.
Despite a fast-moving storm that swept the tarmac as their plane landed, soldiers were greeted planeside by National Guard leaders, including Florida Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Emmett Titshaw Jr.
"The timing couldn't be better," Titshaw said after shaking the hands of each soldier who stepped off the plane. "They were able to come home a few weeks earlier than planned, and now we were able to get them home for a four-day pass to celebrate the holidays. We couldn't ask for more."
After stepping onto U.S. soil, unit commander Lt. Col. David Pellett said the rainy return on this side of the world was the opposite of the dry weather in Southwest Asia, where they were stationed since last spring.
However, the weather didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the returning soldiers. Most hadn't seen green grass and smelled humid air since they left in February.
"They are excited for this, and they are ready to start a four-day pass," Pellett said. "The mission was excellent. They did a great job on it."
After Christmas, the Highlands County soldiers must report back to the Lake Wales armory, and they will be bused back to Camp Shelby to complete the demobilization process required by the Department of Defense.
Keilbasa said 3rd Battalion, 116th Field Artillery were relieved two weeks early, which is why they were able to return home.
He expected them to return home in mid-January, and a homecoming would be staged in Plant City.