HAMMOND | Two Purple Heart medals and four tours of duty later, a Highland man returned home to a hero's welcome Wednesday following his service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An avenue of nearly 60 American flags, unfurled by strong west winds, and a cheering crowd of relatives, friends and well-wishers greeted U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Haney on his return home Wednesday for the first time in two years.
A combat engineer, Haney joined the U.S. Army four years ago and is stationed in Hawaii. He returned Wednesday from his second tour in Afghanistan for a three-week stay at home. During his four years of military service, Haney also served two tours of duty in Iraq.
The 28-year-old Highland High School graduate has received two Purple Heart medals for injuries inflicted by improvised explosive devices during combat. After three weeks at home, Haney will spend the remainder of his 15 months of Army service in Hawaii, receiving medical treatment for concussive injuries.
Haney arrived at Hammond's Cabela’s parking lot about 2 p.m. from O’Hare International Airport in his family’s SUV, escorted by a member of the Indiana Patriot Guard riding a motorcycle.
Organized by Charlotte and “Slick” Sills of Hobart, the salute by the Indiana Patriot Guard took the tall combat engineer by surprise.
“I had no idea,” Haney said with a broad smile.
About 25 employees of Cabela’s also joined in the welcome-home salute.
“We want to welcome him back and thank him for his dedication to the country,” said Jill Stasiak, Cabela’s marketing manager.
Charlotte Sills put a military-style dog-tag ID emblazoned with the American flag around Haney’s neck and told him, “We appreciate everything you do for your community and your country.”
The soldier’s mother, Lori Haney, of Highland, said she was so excited and anxious to get Michael home for the first time in two years.
“My daughter sent out information on Facebook about his return, and the Indiana Patriot Guard contacted us about welcoming Michael home,” she said before heading to O’Hare for a private reunion.
Lori Haney said her son surprised her four years ago by enlisting in the military during wartime.
“He was part of the carpenter’s apprenticeship program and making good money and traveling,” she said. “I tried to support him, the whole time thinking, 'Why?' But he says it’s one of the best things he’s ever done.”
Michael Haney echoed those same sentiments as he prepared to go to his mother’s home for a celebration.
“I just wanted to give back to my country, something bigger than myself,” he said.
When his medical treatment is completed, Haney said he wants to return to civilian life and use his carpentry skills.
“The first thing I want to do is build my own house,” he said, breaking into another big smile.