Navy Seaman Eric M. Schreck walked off a plane at Long Island MacArthur Airport Tuesday into the waiting arms of his mother - and cheers and applause from dozens of TSA workers, airport employees, friends and neighbors.
Returning from a seven-month deployment on the U.S.S. John L. Hall, Schreck, 19, of West Sayville, took part in anti-piracy and anti-terrorism operations near the Horn of Africa. He said he expected his mother and sister to meet him at the airport, but was surprised to see people he didn't know express their gratitude.
"I wasn't expecting this at all," he said later. "My friends told me they were going skiing, but here they are. It means a lot to have their support."
Schreck slept in the Jacksonville, Fla., airport Monday night after the blizzard canceled flights into Philadelphia and MacArthur, leaving him waiting yet another day to see his family and friends.
That moment came at 11:01 a.m. Tuesday when his mother, Paula, met him at the gate, escorted by an airport police officer. As he entered the main concourse, his sister Hannah, 21, ran down the exit line in a blue sweatshirt emblazoned with a Navy logo and hugged him, as friends and neighbors clapped and shouted.
Schreck thanked the crowd, saying, "When people thank me for my service, I say thank you for their support, not just 'You're welcome,' " he said. "It means a lot to us when we are out there knowing people at home are thinking about us."
A 2009 graduate of Sayville High School, Schreck played on the varsity football and lacrosse teams.
The gathering, coordinated by Islip Town Councilman Gene Parrington and airport communications director Catherine Green, was part of the town's "Hometown Heroes" program.
Parrington presented Schreck with a citation for his service. For Parrington, the welcome-back was personal.
"When I came back from Vietnam there was none of this," he said. "We're trying to do right by the men and women in our armed forces."
Representatives from the Long Island Blue Star Moms and the Fraternal Order of Police also greeted Schreck, but had to forgo the usual escort home due to road conditions.
Schreck said he was looking forward to having some home-cooked food, relaxing and catching up with friends until he returns to duty Monday.
"When time at home with friends and family gets taken away from you by something you have no control over it's frustrating," he said. "But I'm definitely going to make the most of it."
Paula Schreck said she was stunned by the number of people who welcomed her son home. She spent the past few days cooking his favorite food and preparing to host a party to celebrate his arrival.
"This was just amazing," she said. "Without my children it doesn't feel like the holidays. Now the holidays can start."