Photo: U.S. Army Spc. Nick Sepeda views the many people who showed up on Saturday to welcome him home to Elburn from Afghanistan. Photo by Susan O’Neill
by Susan O’Neill
ELBURN—Spc. Nick Sepeda doesn’t like to be the center of attention. He said he is usually the guy in the background, but that definitely wasn’t the case on June 2, when Sepeda arrived home for a one-month leave from the U.S. Army, after a one-year deployment to Afghanistan.
His mom picked him up at the airport and when she exited from Interstate 88, he thought they were on their way to his home in Elburn. However, when her car turned into the Sugar Grove Jewel parking lot and he saw the crowd of about 70 people waving flags, he knew he wasn’t going home any time soon.
When he saw all the people, he texted his good friend, Stephanie Merchant, who was standing in the middle of the crowd.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked her.
Sepeda’s mom and step-dad, Jayne and Michael Jordan, had kept his celebratory welcome a secret from him, inviting family and friends, the local police and fire departments and the Patriot Guard. The Elburn and the Sugar Grove fire departments were there with their engines, and the Kane County Sheriff’s Department also came to show respect.
When Sepeda stepped out of the car in his dress blues, he was met by members of the Patriot Guard and Warrior Watch, groups of former soldiers who make it a point to welcome returning soldiers home. They stood in two lines,
forming a long corridor of American flags waving in the wind.
Members of his family and friends cheered and waved smaller flags. After a brief ceremony, everyone mounted their motorcycles or got into their cars and escorted Sepeda to the Kaneville Pavilion for a big celebration.
Sepeda, who was born and raised in Elburn, played a variety of sports at Kaneland High School, including baseball and wrestling. He graduated from Kaneland in 2004, attended classes in welding at Waubonsee Community College, and worked for a time as a welding fabricator, flying to different parts of the country for his job.
He enlisted in the United States Army in April 2010, and completed Basic Infantry Training at Ft. Benning, Georgia, in August of that year. He reported to Ft. Wainwright, Alaska, for combat training and spent a month at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, California, in the Mojave Desert before leaving for Afghanistan.
He deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom in April 2011 and was based at a combat outpost in the Panjwa’i Valley in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The humidity was high and the temperature hovered around 115 degrees, as he and the others in his unit carried 50 pounds of gear, guns and ammunition on their backs. He thankfully was not wounded, but some of his friends were, and he lost a few of them. He saw his share of combat, as well as exploding IEDs. He earned a number of ribbons and medals, including the Army Service Ribbon, Combat Infantry Badge, Afghan Campaign Ribbon and the NATO Award Ribbon.
He arrived back in the states—at Ft. Wainwright in Alaska—in April.
“I was so thankful when they hit American soil,” Jayne said.
While his family and friends waited for him to arrive from the airport, they shared memories of him as a boy.
Elburn residents Kim and Jim Fitzpatrick said they had known him all his life. He and their children had gone to school together.
“I remember his first birthday,” Kim said.
His brother, Danny, came from Texas to see him, arriving at the airport within hours of Nick. His aunt, Vicki Monks, who is Jayne’s sister, was there from Arizona. She hopes that he will come out there to go to school at Arizona State.
“I was graduating high school when he was a baby,” she said.
Sirens blaring and horns honking, the crowd escorted Sepeda past his old high school before arriving in Kaneville for the celebration. People who have known him forever and those who had met him that day shook his hand, hugged him, and told him they were glad he was home.
The young man who didn’t like to be the center of attention, smiled at all the people gathered in his honor. He thanked them all for coming and then his mom invited everyone to stay and eat.
“It was fun; it was definitely cool,” Sepeda said later.
When he finally tired of graciously posing with various combinations of family members for pictures, Sepeda slipped away to the library. There, he found Library Director Ray Christainsen, who gave him the use of his office to change into civilian clothes.
Prior to joining the Army, Sepeda had volunteered for about a year in the library, helping Christiansen with all kinds of tasks.
Christiansen described him as “bright, warm and funny,” and “an all-around nice guy.”
“I’m happy he’s home,” Christiansen said.
Sepeda gave him a hug before going back out to join the party.
“Yeah, he’s a warrior, and we’re glad he is, but he’s also a very caring person,” Christiansen said.
Sepeda said he’s going to spend this month hanging out with friends, and going to concerts and baseball games. He’s a Sox fan.
He’s not sure about his future after he finishes his tour of duty next year, but he said he’s got some time to think about that.