EMOTIONS were high as thousands lined the streets of Barnsley to welcome home ‘England’s Northern Cavalry’ - The Light Dragoons.
Tearful reunions and thunderous applause greeted the Yorkshire soldiers as they marched into the town centre, following a six-month tour in Afghanistan.
And for soldier Luke Hodson, their return came just in the nick of time!
The 21-year-old Barnsley lad and girlfriend Laurel Kerslake are expecting their first baby any day now, after finding out Laurel was pregnant just one week before Luke shipped out to Afghanistan.
“The last six months have been really tough,” Laurel, also 21, told The Star.
“It was horrible Luke not being here, but I’m just so happy to have him back. My due date is today and I feel ready to pop, so I can relax now knowing he’ll be here for the birth.”
Luke added: “I was so worried leaving her just after we found out, but I managed to reschedule my leave to be there for the baby scans which was brilliant.
“I’m just so happy I didn’t miss the birth!”
The Light Dragoons return comes just weeks after the loss of Doncaster soldier Sergeant Lee Davidson, who was killed when his armoured vehicle hit a roadside bomb, in Nahr-e Saraj, Helmand.
The married dad of two was the 427th member of UK forces to have died since operations in Afghanistan began back in October 2001.
“As ever, our joy at being home is tarnished by our grief for those who didn’t make it and their families,” said Commanding Officer Lt Col Sam Plant.
“Sgt Davidson’s death was a real blow for a small family regiment like ours.
“We knowingly put ourselves in harm’s way, but no amount of training can take away the shock and pain of losing a friend.
“As always, on days like today, it’s the public’s support that nourishes us.”
Barnsley’s legendary former cricket umpire Dickie Bird was at the homecoming parade.
“This is a marvellous occasion and I wouldn’t be anywhere else today,” said Dickie, who was visibly emotional during the minute silence held in memory of Sgt Davidson.
“I spent some time chatting with the troops this morning and am so proud so many people turned out to welcome them home.
“If it wasn’t for these kids, none of us would be here today, and that deserves a celebration.”
One woman with plenty to celebrate was Barnsley mum Jill Clark, whose 21-year-old son Rikki has just returned from his first Afghanistan tour.
“His first and his last,” the 46-year-old insisted.
“This has been the worst six-and-a-half months of my life and I’ve put my foot down and told him - no more.
“I’m so proud of him today, but I couldn’t bear to go through it all again.”
But it looks like she might have to.
“My duty isn’t done yet,” Rikki Clark later told The Star.
“It’s wonderful to be home but there’s still work to be done out there and if my men go back, you can be sure I’ll be right there with them.”