Pete Nichio got quite a homecoming on Thursday afternoon.
When returning home after a 10-month deployment with the Connecticut National Guard in Afghanistan, the Shelton resident was greeted on Bridgeport Avenue by a huge American flag hanging from a fire truck ladder and a few dozen firefighters and friends saluting him on the side of the road.
“Thank you for coming out,” Nichio said as hugs, handshakes and hellos soon were exchanged. “This is great,” he said with a smile.
Most of the people welcoming him were Shelton volunteer firefighters. Nichio is a former Echo House Hook & Ladder Co. volunteer firefighter who now works as a paid firefighter in Westport.
“Hello, my brothers and sisters,” said Nichio, 40, dressed in his military fatigues.
Organized by close friend
The welcoming crew was organized by Shelton Fire Department Paul J. Wilson, who became close friends with Nichio when they served with Echo Hose together about a decade ago.
“Being Dallas Cowboy fans — we’re so few and far between around here — we stuck together,” Wilson said of the start of their bond.
They now play hockey together in a firefighter league and stay in close contact. Wilson is relieved to see his close friend return safely from the overseas war.
The group stood near Wells Hollow Farms and Creamery, whose owners had agreed to let them gather there and use part of the property as a base. There were fire vehicles and an ambulance as well as the fire truck with the big flag hanging over the street, at the Bridgeport Avenue intersection with Beard Sawmill Road and Mill Street.
A former Marine
Nichio is a staff sergeant in the Army National Guard. He previously served in the Marines, spending time in Somalia and Kuwait.
The 1991 St. Joseph High School graduate has a 7-year-old daughter. His parents, Peter and Karen Nichio, also live in Shelton.
While in Afghanistan, his unit spent most of its time breaking down small military bases as part of the gradual U.S. withdraw from that country. They operated near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
Wilson had been in touch with Nichio’s parents during the day, who were bringing their son home from Bradley Airport, where Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had officially thanked a group of returning National Guard members that included Nichio for serving their country.
‘I had no idea’
The Shelton group was ready when the vehicle with Nichio inside turned onto Bridgeport Avenue from Old Stratford Road, lining up and saluting him as he arrived.
“I had no idea,” said a pleasantly surprised Nichio.
“Thank you so much,” he told the group. “I appreciate it so much. This is what it’s all about — on the fire side, on the military side, keeping safe.”
After spending about 15 minutes interacting with the group of mostly firefighters, Nichio continued on his way home, where another group of admirers — including many family members — was eagerly awaiting his arrival as well.
Support from the public
Later, during an interview, Nichio said it’s heartening to experience how the public treats people serving in the armed services these days.
“You saw what happened in Vietnam,” he said. “It’s great to see how society as a whole now rallies around the troops. I think it’s mostly due to 9/11, the Pearl Harbor of our generation.”
Just before arriving back in Shelton, he and his parents had stopped for coffee. At the shop, Nichio noted, the two people in front of him in line — he was wearing his Army fatigues — paid for his beverages.