SNELLVILLE, Ga. -- It's been a long journey away, and back home again, for Army Sgt. Justin Lansford of the 82nd Airborne.
Sgt. Lansford -- he just received his stripes at a promotion ceremony Friday morning -- came home to Snellville and to the football field of his alma mater, Brookwood High School (he is Class of '07) late Friday afternoon.
Greeting him werethe salutes and cheers and embraces of townspeople who have kept him close in their thoughts and prayers through the toughest ordeal of his young life.
"It's been a tough five or six months," Lansford said, one hand on a caneas he stood tall and proud in his dress uniform, including his red beret.
It was in April when Sgt. Lansford was gravely wounded in action in an IED explosion in Afghanistan.
The loss of his left leg was the least of his wounds, said his parents, Kim and Rick Lansford.
Rick said Justin is letting nothing defeat him.
"He's even said that if he had it to do this over again, he gladly would," Rick said.
This was the first time since that day in April that Sgt. Lansford had returned to his hometown and to Brookwood where he played football. It was a welcomed, weekend break from his arduous rehab at Walter Reed, to watch Brookwood play South Gwinnett in the annual Battle of Snellville.
He flew into DeKalb Peachtree Airport, courtesy of the Veterans Air Lift Command, landing just after 4:00 p.m.
He and his family climbed into a stretch limosine, and a convoy of Gwinnett County Police and Georgia State Patrol Troopers escorted them, with lights and sirens, up I-85 and down Ronald Reagan Parkway, slicing effortlessly through otherwise solid, Friday afternoon gridlock.
Firefighters and police officers lined parts of the 25-mile route, and as the motorcade approached they stood at attention and saluted.
Outside Brookwood High School, moms, dads and children crowded alongDogwood Road and cheered, waving small, American flags, as Sgt. Lansford rode past them and then underneath a giant American flag that Gwinnett County firefighters hung between the two, extended ladders of their trucks.
He climbed out of the limo just outside the football stadium -- Lansford was a tight end for the Broncos, playing for Head Coach Mark Crews -- to find Crews and assistant coaches and former coaches, and teachers, and classmates waiting for him.
Lansford smiled and laughed and chatted with them, as, one by one, they shook his hand, and hugged him, and told him how proud they are of him, and how proud they are to know him. They asked him how he's doing. And theythanked him for his service.
It was barely 5:00 p.m. The game wasn't starting until 7:30. For two and a half hours, outside that stadium, people kept walking up to him, friends and neighbors and strangers, to greet him and take their picture with him. And to thank him.
And it didn't stop during the game.
Lansford stood on the sidelines next to the Broncos bench while the battle raged on the field, and ROTC students and cheerleaders and dancers and parents and police officers continued to approach him to welcome him home.
And then, at halftime, after both schools' bands performed, a crowd of the town's dignataries ledSgt. Justin Lansford onto his former field of battle to honor him publicly, to honor this survivor, this national hero, for stepping up and enlisting in the Army and risking life and losing limb for them, and for freedom.
Snellville Mayor Kelly Kautz presented Lansford with the key to the city.
He received a folded American flag that had flown in Afghanistan.
And he received a plaque. There were no speeches. The public address announcer, in the booth atop the home stands, served as master of ceremonies for the brief tribute. The announcer read to the crowds what the plaque says:
"Hometown Hero, Justin Lansford: For your courage, service and sacrifice. In Snellville Everybody is Proud to be Somebody and Everybody is Proud of Justin."
"He's in awe by this," Rick Lansford said. "And he doesn't feel like he deserves any special attention. You know, he said he was just doing what he wanted to do, and what he felt he had to do. And he doesn't feel that made him a hero, at all, just because he got blown up. But in my eyes, he is. He's my hero.... He's made me a stronger person just watching him. And his attitude and the stuff he's gone through to get better, and to go on...."
Rick fought back tears of pride in his son, his son who wanted to be a soldier, and serve, since he was a boy.
Sgt. Lansford's rehab at Walter Reed is expected to take about another year, and Rick said that Justin would also like to work on his college degree during that time -- he completed two years at Georgia State University before enlisting.
"The community support is lifting him up, giving him strength," he said.
"I couldn't have done it without everybody's support," Sgt. Lansford told 11Alive's Jon Shirek. "And I want to thank everybody in Snellville for their continued support. I'm slowly gettup up there, I'm walking around with one cane, now. As opposed to two. And I was on crutches before that. And I was walking with a walker before that. So -- small milestones every day make a big difference. There are other wounded soldiers and veterans out there now that need everyone's help more than I do."
As Lansford spoke, more people were waiting for the news interview to end so they could shake his hand and take a picture with him.
"I don't really know what to say," he said with a big smile. "It's awesome to be home."