MORRIS — Nearly a year ago, Morris resident Andy Stoltz and his Army National Guard unit were deployed to Iraq.
"Our mission was to help the Iraqis with their logistical capabilities," Stoltz said. "I was in the HR and personnel portion of it."
Staff Sergeant Stoltz returned home recently after being gone for 305 days, but with the COVID-19 pandemic limiting celebrations and gatherings, his family decided to do the next best thing.
Stoltz's wife, Jackie, and her aunt, JoEllyn Johnson organized a parade of family and friends that drove past his house. Cars were decorated with American flags, balloons and signs welcoming Stoltz back home. Vehicles from the Morris Police Department, Grundy County Sheriff's Office and Morris Fire Protection District led the parade with sirens blaring and lights flashing, followed by a contingent of motorcycles driven by members of the American Legion Freedom Riders, then followed by the convoy of cars at least 30 in number.
"Jim Maskel at the VFW was originally going to let us have the party at the 'V'," Johnson said as the vehicles lined up at the Morris Fire Protection District station on Ashton Road. "But, with the stay-at-home order, we couldn't do that. We decided this was the next best thing. We got on Facebook and messaged his friends and family while blocking him. He had no idea it was coming."
The secret was kept, and Stoltz was indeed surprised.
"There is a girl in our neighborhood that is doing a project by taking quarantine pictures," Jackie Stoltz said. "We got Andy outside by telling him she wanted us to be a part of her project."
"When I heard the fire sirens, I just figured there was a fire somewhere,"Andy Stoltz said. "But then when I saw the Freedom Riders, I knew it must be some sort of parade. I had no idea it was for me, though. It was quite surprising and overwhelming."
In order for the parade to happen, Jackie Stoltz knew she would have to keep it a secret.
"There were so many people asking if we were going to have a parade for him," she said. "But, I knew if I told him, that Andy wouldn't want it. He doesn't like all that recognition, but we felt like he deserved it."
As cars passed by the house, Andy Stoltz waved and acknowledged their cheers and support. Some even stopped to have him come to their cars and receive gifts.
"It just think it's neat that we have such a close-knit community," he said. "We all support everyone. I am just at a loss for words. It was truly amazing. There were people I don't even really interact with that came by and just wanted to show their support."
Jackie Stoltz said that her husband received drinks, gift cards and books among the gifts.
Even the Stotz's two sons, Jackson, 8, and Grant, 5, were kept in the dark.
"We know how kids keep secrets, so we didn't tell them, either," Jackie Stoltz said. "They really thought it was cool and neat that Daddy had a parade. They didn't know until it started."
Jackie Stoltz also noted the feeling of community.
"I work at Morris Grade School as a teacher," she said. "During the 10 months that Andy was gone, the school had an adopt a soldier program. The classes each adopted a solder on Andy's team and wrote letters back and forth and, in December, they sent 20 boxes to them. The school was very supportive of Andy and his team."
Andy Stoltz said that, for now, this was his last deployment.