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It was 36 degrees and still two days before Christmas, but Lowe's parking lot was already buzzing with activity at 0600 hours. The crowd of families, many huddled near heaters, began to swell under the enormous white tent in Fort, Mill, S.C. Not in anticipation of Santa Claus. He was already there. But for about 100 members of the National Guard's 1222nd Engineer Company returning home from training at Fort McCoy, Wis., before shipping off for duty in Afghanistan. A similar homecoming for another 100 soldiers from the 174th Engineer Company was under way outside Lowe's in Spartanburg, 70 miles away.

Just a few days earlier, it didn't look like many of the soldiers would make it home. Federal regulations bar soldiers from traveling at government expense while on leave, and the Family Readiness Group that assists families during deployments needed to raise $35,000 to pay for charter buses.

"More than $10,000 came in cash and checks from all kinds of people," said Wanda Bennett, whose son, Spc. Alan Bennett, is a member of the Fort Mill unit and on his second tour of duty.

But they were still $25,000 short, until Fort Mill store employees contacted Lowe's corporate office. Lowe's picked up the balance of $25,000 to bring home more than 200 husbands, wives, sons and daughters for 10 days with their families.

"When Lowe's contacted me, I about fell out of my seat. I was floored!" said Bennett, who is also president of the Fort Mill unit's Family Readiness Group.

News of the homecomings spread quickly. One young mother said she was home stringing up Christmas lights, hoping for a miracle, when she learned her husband would be coming home. Another mother, Beckie Greene, a cashier in Lowe's Charleston, S.C., store since 2005, was thrilled her husband, Pfc. Bobby Maciariello, would return in time for Christmas with daughter Morgan, 7, and son Robbie III, 5.

"It was just like a dream come true," said Greene, whose husband is a medic with the 1222nd National Guard unit.

Signs of excitement and gratitude

In Lowe's Fort Mill parking lot, heartfelt, handmade signs were everywhere. One boy's sign read, "All I want for Christmas is 1. My Daddy, 2. My Daddy, 3. My Daddy," and it kept going. Kelly White of Rock Hill waved a sign she made for her husband, Spc. Mark White: "Welcome Home, Mark! Merry Christmas!" Two other women, married just three weeks, were there waiting for their husbands. One of them was preparing to head to Afghanistan herself in just three weeks. Lowe's also made sure the soldiers had a few other things waiting for them, including a 103-piece Kobalt toolkit and a Lowe's gift card.

Frankie Burnette, Lowe's store manager in Spartanburg, was especially proud to be part of the welcome home; his three brothers served in the military. Tom Holbrook, store manager in Fort Mill, and his team had even more reasons to be excited. Many of his employees are veterans.

Lowe's gratitude for the men and women of the armed services goes back more than 60 years. Lowe's was founded on the heels of World War II by veteran Carl Buchan. Today, more than 12,000 Lowe's employees are veterans. Lowe's offers extended benefits to employees serving in the military and honors customers who are veterans, too, offering a military discount.

Jerry Eplin, an 18-year Army veteran who calls himself a regular at Lowe's Fort Mill store, waited outside the tent and talked about seeing soldiers from the base training near his house.

"It's a great thing Lowe's is doing for them," Eplin said.

In the distance, the sudden roar of a motorcycle escort signaled the end of a four-hour wait and beginning of a heroes' escort. A 20-by-40-foot American flag flapped against the Carolina blue sky, commanding the crowd's attention. Beneath, hundreds of family members, friends, veterans, customers and employees gathered closer. Some held American flags on poles to form a more formal path to guide the buses.

Soldiers stepped off the buses and into a brief formation. Gen. Ronald Huff presented a plaque thanking Lowe's, then released the soldiers for the holiday. One collective, "There's Daddy!" rang out and families searching for their loved ones found each other. Screams of joy. Hugs. Then hugs that lasted so long they turned into tears.

"The soldiers here will remember," said Sfc. George Kast as he looked across the crowd for his family. "You touched them and showed them that Lowe's cares."