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Welling up at sergeant’s welcome home

Dozens of flag bearers stood lining a quiet residential street in Bradenton. Curious neighbors peered from their windows and yards as members of the Patriot Guard and the Christian Motorcyclists’ Association parked their motorcycles and took a place alongside the road. Conversations became almost whispers as everyone waited.

Across the state hours earlier in West Palm Beach, First Sgt. Aaron Cornelius, 4th Battalion, 64th Armor, had climbed into a white minivan with his wife for the last leg of a journey that started months ago. He was finally coming home.

On April 10, 2008, an improvised explosive device hit Platoon Sgt. Cornelius and his men, killing five. He got his guys out of there before he was taken away, said his wife, Leilani.

In Bradenton, the sound of motorcycles, faint at first, grew in volume as Cornelius’motorcade grew closer. Flags were straightened; some people stood at attention and saluted.

Cornelius would see none of it.

In the Dora district of Iraq almost a year ago, Cornelius was blinded in the explosion that killed his men. Cornelius could not see his welcome home, but surely he heard and felt it.

As his car grew closer, a cheer arose and shouts of welcome home were yelled over the roar of motorcycle engines. The Army veteran of 17 years and father of five smiled and waved out his car’s window as the Patriot Guard escorted him home.

“I’m so excited to see him!” said his aunt, Linda Shiba, who flew from California to welcome home her nephew after his months of rehabilitation at Walter Reed Hospital, then the VA center in West Palm.

“I came here to honor a hero, that’s what we’re all about,” said Jim Toth, a Patriot Guard rider from Zephyrhills. “It makes me feel good to give back to the people who stand up for us.”

As Cornelius exited the minivan in his driveway, he was enfolded into the arms of family members and friends. A line formed, and solemnly each rider welcomed home the man they had come to honor. Tears flowed as each person walked up and hugged First Sgt. Aaron Cornelius.

“It’s so good to be back where people love me and care for me,”said Cornelius.

The wounded warrior is not finished with his work.

“Now that I’m back, it’s my turn to go help people. I want to be a mentor — to help the next wounded soldier,” he said. “You know, the military can be ornery to you, but the camaraderie, the closeness — it will definitely be missed.”

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