TRENTON, Ga. - If it hadn't been raining that February day in Afghanistan, Monday's homecoming might have been a much more somber affair.
"This is not a sad day, this is a happy day!" Bill Lockhart, commander of the American Legion Post, shouted Monday as Sgt. Joey Ferguson rode into Trenton's city square in a sport utility vehicle.
Back in February, Ferguson, 24, who had twice completed tours of duty in Iraq, was serving in the U.S. Marines with a K-9 unit in Afghanistan. While patrolling one morning with bomb-sniffing dogs, he was careful to follow the muddy footprints of someone who had gone before him. Then, as he put his right foot down in a print, his foot slipped a little in the mud - sliding into a homemade bomb.
Because it was wet and rainy, the explosive was only about half as powerful as it otherwise would have been. So while severely damaging his foot, the blast spared the rest of his leg, and possibly his life.
Ferguson, who greeted supporters Monday from a wheelchair, now wears an external brace to stabilize his bare foot. While the foot is still intact, after about 10 surgeries, it is disfigured and black in some areas. Still, Ferguson hopes therapy will allow him to keep the foot and walk on it again someday.
The Trenton homecoming left him overwhelmed.
"This is something else. I never would have expected this; it's more than I ever could have asked for," he said, looking around at the crowd. "There's nothing I could say to thank them enough."
As Lockhart wheeled him around the crowd, Ferguson shook hands, high-fived and hugged nearly everyone there, expressing his feelings again and again to his supporters.
"Hey, good to see you again."
"I love you, too."
"Thank you very much."
Betty Gray, a fifth-grade teacher at Dade Elementary School, walked with 150 students from the school to the square Monday morning. Gray's son, Harrison, is one of Ferguson's best friends, and the teacher had a hard time keeping her composure as the crowd waited for the marine to arrive.
She said that, every time Ferguson is home, he makes sure to stop and visit Gray's mother - a woman to whom he is not related - in the nursing home where she's lived for the past 11 years.
"He's real close to me. He's a sweetheart; a rambunctious sweetheart," she said through laughter and tears. "I could not not be here."
One of Gray's fifth-graders, Madison Schauer, 10, said her class talked about the sacrifices made by soldiers like Ferguson.
"I'm out here because I want to thank him for serving our country and keeping us safe," she said. "We're going to wave our flags to him, put our hands on our hearts and say, 'Thank you.'"
Bud Bell, a retired brigadier general with the U.S. Air Force, came dressed in fatigues to honor Ferguson's return. It's very important for communities to show support for their own when they return from combat, he said.
As Ferguson made his way around the crowd, Bell stole a second to speak to him.
"I told him, 'Thank you for what you've done for your country,' and that I hoped the treatment he was receiving on his legs would allow him to walk on them again one day."
After Ferguson spends the next 30 days receiving physical therapy and wound care in the area, he will return to a hospital in Bethesda, Md., where his doctors there can evaluate his progress.
"So far it's looking good, but there's no promises that I'll be able to keep [my foot]," he said.
Contact Kelli Gauthier at email@example.com or 423 757-6249. Find her online at facebook.com/reportergauthier or twitter.com/gauthierkelli.