Sixth-generation military veteran Spc. Jerry Hardy III, 24, was finally headed home to Clearfield Friday after returning from a 15-month deployment in Iraq with the Utah National Guard.

Among a throng of flag-waving greeters, one small crowd comprising just Hardy's family was at the Utah Air National Guard air base in Salt Lake City at 7 a.m. to greet a Southwest Airlines plane that delivered about 120 members of the 115th Maintenance Company.

There to welcome Hardy was grandpa Joe Dupuis, 70, a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, baby sister Amber Hardy, 17, and everyone in between, including a new niece, Emily, he had never met and his wife Kristi, whom he married two weeks before leaving for Iraq.

"I can't believe this is real," Kristi said as she waited for her husband. They kept in touch almost every day via computer and Web camera. "He was so close, but I couldn't touch him — it was horrible."

Kristi held a sign that read, "My Hero," until a uniformed, blond-haired Hardy lifted his wife off the ground in a long embrace.

"It feels great to be back," said Hardy, who had no more room around his neck for the red, white and blue leis given to him by family.

As Hardy waited in the plane, his family talked about the man whose job it was to stand guard in a tower, surrounded by sand and vulnerable to attacks by enemy grenade launchers.

Even though Hardy was shot at on July 4, 2005, his mom, Corinne Hardy, didn't fret about her son's safety.

"There was a peace within me at all times," she said. "I felt comfort that he would be OK."

Jerry Hardy Jr., who served in the Air Force for 20 years and took part in the Gulf War, admitted he was worried about his only son, a former Eagle Scout and one of four siblings.

"If something happened to him, it would be the end of the line," he said.

The word "pride" kept coming up and Hardy's grandmother, Doris Dupuis, was no exception.

"He's proud of what he's doing," she said.

Since January 2005, Hardy and others in his unit had helped provide security at forward operating bases. He would work at jobs that his sister, Misty Hardy, said were part of the positive side of combat that the public doesn't see.

"I don't think enough of the good things that happen are being reported," she said.

But it was dangerous work at times, being part of the kind of convoys that have claimed the lives of so many soldiers. Two of 16 Utah soldiers killed since 2003 died this year after roadside bombs exploded near their Humvees.

"That was kind of frightening for him," said sister Shannon Thurgood about working with convoys.

Her husband, Robert Thurgood, said the experience has changed his normally shy brother-in-law in a good way.

"Being in Iraq has kicked a little bit of that shyness out of him," he said. "He's more outgoing."

Little sister Amber just wanted a hug from the guy who for most of her life has been there for late-night talks during hard times.

"He was like my best friend for the longest time," said Amber, who shed her share of tears while missing Hardy.

Even Hardy's grandpa, a crew chief and boom operator on a KC-135 cargo plane for the Air Force, revealed a soft touch under a tough exterior. His grandson, so much a source of pride, was finally just a few steps away.

"Thank God my prayers were answered and he's home," Joe Dupuis said. "I prayed for that boy every night."