SIX months ago parents, children and friends of 1 Rifles soldiers shed tears of sadness as their much loved relatives embarked on their tour to Afghanistan.
Fast forward to yesterday, and they were replaced with tears of joy as more than 2,000 people welcomed the brave men and women home to Chepstow.
On what was a beautiful day, 100 Riflemen on behalf of the battalion were granted the freedom of Chepstow by mayor Cllr Henry Hodges.
General Sir Nicholas Parker, currently the Commander-in- Chief, Land Forces, who oversees 1 Rifles, gave a short speech thanking the town for its support.
“I am enormously grateful to you for bestowing on this regiment and particularly this battalion the freedom of your town,” he told Cllr Hodges.
The mayor was introduced to several of the soldiers, enlightened by some of their stories from the front line.
He said: “I was surprised to hear some of their first hand experiences.
One had been shot in the stomach and saved by their body armour. They have had to go through a lot and I’m very proud of what they’ve achieved.”
The granting ceremony meant the soldiers have the right to march through Chepstow, and they did so with pride.
As they passed in their military units, the town and its people burst into rapturous applause.
Flags were being waved frantically and cheers rang out, as men, women and children showed their appreciation for their work during Operation Herrick 14.
Pupils from St Mark’s Primary in Bulwark held a ‘welcome home’ banner they had made, whilst youngsters from Pembroke Primary and St John’s on the Hill school clapped.
Corporal David Jones, of Brynmawr, described the homecoming as “emotional”.
“I really didn’t think this many people would turn out,” he said.
Commanding Officer of 1 Rifles James de Labilliere said the riflemen had been buoyed by positive public reaction to the tour.
He said: “It means a huge amount. After a hard summer to come back and see glorious Chepstow and the support we’ve received is incredible.”
Later in the afternoon, soldiers received their Operational Medals for service at a Beachley Barracks parade.
However whilst it was happiness for many, Lt Cl de La Billiere was keen to remember the five soldiers who did not make it back home.
“It is a day of mixed emotions on many accounts. We are remembering them and each of their families are here,” he added.
Special homecoming for Brynmawr soldier
THE end of the six-and-a-half month tour could not come quick enough for Corporal David Jones, one of just a handful from Gwent who serve with 1 Rifles.
In a phone call to wife Helen, the 43-year-old from Brynmawr found out daughter Katie, 21, had given birth to his first grandchild.
The Valleys soldier flew out to Afghanistan as a battlefield casualty replacement, which meant he missed the birth of little granddaughter Mia.
Although he heard few updates of how she was doing across the phone, he said nothing was better than holding her for the first time. “It was unbelievable,” he said.
EDITORIAL COMMENT: fitting tribute
THE sheer numbers of people lining the streets of Chepstow to support the 1 Rifles is an illustration of the level of local public support they enjoy.
Hundreds of people descended on the town to watch the march past as the troops, based at the nearby Beachley Barracks, were granted the freedom of the town.
It is a fitting honour for a battalion whose members have just returned from their second gruelling tour of Afghanistan.
The sun shone on the parade as the soldiers marched past flag and banner waving crowds, following a ceremony at Chepstow Castle to bestow the freedom of the town on the battalion.
But it was a day of mixed emotions and there were also tears of sadness as the five soldiers who did not make it back home this time were remembered by all present.
The 1 Rifles were left in no doubt how much they mean to the people of Chepstow.