Umbrellas in one hand and American flags in the other, more than 20 people gathered around the entrance to the Highland Creek neighborhood last week.
Residents of the neighborhood, which straddles the Cabarrus-Mecklenburg line, huddled on the sidewalk, smiling in anticipation despite the cold drizzle.
"He's here!" someone shouted, resulting in a chorus of party horns and yells.
Neighbors and friends formed a welcoming party to greet Spc. Brian Riggs, 23, who returned home after a nine-month deployment to Iraq with the North Carolina Army National Guard's 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team.
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Riggs was one of 35 soldiers from the unit who returned to the Charlotte area Feb. 2. The soldiers began training in December 2008 and were sent to Iraq in April 2009.
"I'm just so excited," said Riggs' mother, Fran Riggs. "I'm feeling a lot of emotions right now."
In Iraq, the soldiers trained Iraqi Police and Army Forces, assisted in civil projects such as school and infrastructure improvements and conducted joint combat operations with Iraqi Security Forces, according to the N.C. National Guard.
Soldiers lost in battle
During the deployment, 29 of the unit's soldiers were wounded in action and seven - five of whom were North Carolina National Guardsmen - were killed.
The first thing Riggs planned to do when he got home was simple.
"I want to get out of these clothes," he said of his Army fatigues.
Then he'll just relax, he said.
"And play with that little girl right there," he said, pointing to his niece.
Fran Riggs said that although she was able to keep up with her son through Facebook and Skype, a software application that allows voice calls to be made over the Internet, it was lonely with him gone.
"It's great to have him home," said Riggs' father, Pat Riggs.
Taylor Lynch, 19, held a colorful sign welcoming the soldier home as his car pulled into the neighborhood. They were next-door neighbors when they were young.
"We used to play army on the golf course together," Lynch said.
Marci Mroz, who helped organize the welcoming party, has known Riggs since he was 6 years old.
"We're so thankful he's come home safe and sound," she said.
Mroz's father-in-law, Steve Mroz, also lives in the neighborhood and came out in the rain to show his support. The 85-year-old served in the Navy during World War II.
It's important to show appreciation for the troops, he said as his eyes filled with tears.
"We didn't have this," he said of the welcoming celebration. "There were so many veterans in World War II, they didn't have the time."
Children say thanks
After greeting neighbors, Riggs' parents drove him to Highland Creek Elementary School where students lined the school's front walkway, screaming as they waved flags and handmade posters.
Riggs gave them high-fives and collected the posters the students had made for him. Some asked to keep their posters - with Riggs' autograph.
Riggs said he'll be deployed to Afghanistan in two years. But between now and then, he plans to go back to school, take a vacation and simply have fun.
"I'm ready to be home," he said.