From tears of fear and anxiety to tears of pure, unmitigated joy, it's been a long, long year. After saying goodbye to family and friends in a gut-wrenching ceremony last winter, the soldiers of the 322nd Engineer Battalion were all smiles as they returned to Decorah/Northeast Iowa Tuesday afternoon after a 10-month deployment in Afghanistan.

For nearly a year, the friends and relatives of the valiant servicemen and women of the 322nd have been holding their breath and praying for the safe return of their loved ones. But that great weight of apprehension has finally been lifted. They have all returned safe and sound, and for the first time in a long, long while, sleepless nights will be transformed into blissful slumber knowing their soldier is no longer in harm's way.

Hallelujah.

Appropriately enough, the members of the 322nd were met with a heartfelt and rousing ovation as they paraded down Water Street and were then honored with a ceremony at the Decorah High School auditorium.

Decorah Mayor Don Arendt officially proclaimed January as "Welcome Home Month" in the city and penned a proclamation that sums up their heroic tour of duty perfectly:

"The military unit has faithfully served for the past year in the War on Terror in Afghanistan. The unit's members have loyally fulfilled their duties in protecting all United States citizens.

"Unit members have worked with Afghanistan officials to improve living conditions and quality of life for all Afghani people.

"The people of the Decorah community and Winneshiek County recognize the sacrifices these troops and their families have made and hardships they have endured."

Arendt then went on to emphasize that the month of January will be dedicated to thanking the active Reservists who have returned to our community.

As the parents of a son who served two one-year tours of duty with the U.S. Army in Iraq and was wounded when his unit was ambushed, my wife, Sarah, and I can relate to the great sense of relief and unrestrained happiness of those who have been nervously awaiting the 322nd's return.

We know what it feels like to lie awake in the darkness ... staring at the ceiling ... trying to form a mental image of the dangers our young man was encountering day after frightening day. We know what it feels like to worry constantly about an official U.S. Army vehicle pulling up in front of our house to deliver news that would profoundly change our lives forever.

Fortunately, that horrible scenario never materialized for us or anyone connected with the 322nd. On behalf of the citizens of this entire area, I'd like to extend a grateful and sincere "Welcome home," to the 322nd and commend them on a job well done.

You have represented yourselves, your unit and your country with distinction and valor. We are all so proud of you. Thank you a million times over.



The 'Way It Isn't'

This is to officially inform our readers the opinion piece entitled "The Way It Is" will no longer be a part of Decorah Newspapers.

While I'm aware that a couple of "letters to the editor" expressed, in no uncertain terms, a strong disapproval of publishing anonymous opinions, that isn't the reason it's being eliminated.

There's no question several people were upset opinions could be expressed without the accountability of a signed name - most of those who complained were public employees who depend on taxpayers for their salaries - but I can't tell you how many folks made it a point to tell me how much they enjoyed the addition to the opinion page.

"I just love it," said one supporter. "It's by far my favorite part of the newspaper."

Another fan wrote me an e-mail that stated: "I see a few people complaining about 'The Way It Is' but there is a silent majority that enjoy it. It is great to voice an opinion without having to face retribution from say an employer. Your paper and 'The Way It Is' provides a way for the 'little guy' to speak up. It's not about 'courage' like one lady wrote. It's about common sense and not cutting your own throat so to speak."

His, or her, point was well made and accurately summarized why the column was started in the first place. Just like the Des Moines Register's "Two Cents Worth" that includes anonymous opinions about issues of the day, "The Way It Is" was meant to give a voice to those who didn't want to risk condemnation or reprisals from the people or organizations they were writing about.

Like it or not, that's one of the downsides of living in a small community: You have to be careful about what you say publically or it could have serious repercussions. That truism has a tendency to restrict open discussion of some important matters, and "The Way It Is" was intended to help solve that problem.

But, again, that isn't the reason it's being removed. The simple truth is submissions to "The Way It Is" completely dried up, and it had become evident it was the same handful of people who were offering their anonymous opinions.

As a final statement, it should also be noted that the 50-words-or-less observations were edited closely. There were many that bordered on slander or libel or were in such poor taste, I refused to publish them.

Moving forward ...