Former Brookwood football player Justin Lansford, 23, has recently recovered from a life-threatening injury while serving in Afghanistan as an Army Infantryman is honored prior to the Brookwood and South Gwinnett football game in Snellville on Friday. Lansford is welcomed home by Brookwood coach Tom Jones' wife Linda Jones, right, along side his family and friends. Lansford who has been promoted to sergeant lost his left leg from a roadside bomb back in April.
SNELLVILLE -- There was an honor guard lining Dogwood Road Friday, a massive American flag draped overhead.
There was a seven-car escort from the airport, with a cluster of strangers waving the Stars and Stripes as it drove by. There were hugs and handshakes and pictures, questions from old friends and interviews with the media.
There was a key to the city and a standing ovation.
On Friday, Justin Lansford came home.
Lansford -- a freshly promoted U.S. Army Sergeant -- returned to Brookwood High School on Friday night to watch the squad he played football for until graduation in 2007. Donning full military uniform and using a single cane to walk on his prosthetic left leg, the wounded war veteran got a hero's welcome.
"I'd say it's surreal," Lansford said. "It's good to be home. I wasn't ready for as big of a welcome as I got. It's amazing that everybody showed up with that kind of support."
At the end of April, Lansford was severely wounded in Afghanistan when his MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected vehicle) hit a roadside bomb while on a recovery mission. By the time Lansford was extricated from the situation, he was in grave danger.
The 22-year-old Army infantryman ended up losing his left leg and spleen, lacerating his liver and breaking both femurs. He was on a ventilator because of chest and lung injuries.
His recovery has been a long (and still current) process at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.
He was probably the only one surprised by the turnout Friday for his first trip back to his alma mater.
"It's an inspiration to the city," Snellville Mayor Kelly Kautz said before presenting him with a key to the city. "He's a hero to a lot of people, and, just like Aimee Copeland, has brought our community together."
Gary Neidhardt was one of those lining Dogwood Road as the caravan carrying Lansford drove by late Tuesday afternoon. His son -- who played football at Brookwood with Lansford -- is now a second lieutenant with the Marines.
"If my son lost a leg in Afghanistan," Neidhardt said, "this is precisely what I would want to have welcoming him coming back to homecoming. This is what he deserves."
Lansford was promoted sergeant -- a big deal, because "you go from being just a soldier to a non-commissioned officer," he said -- at 9 a.m. sharp Friday before hopping on a flight that ultimately landed at Peachtree-DeKalb Airport outside of Atlanta.
A motorcade took him and his family to Brookwood, where he was welcomed by a collective honor guard from the Gwinnett fire, sheriff's and police departments.
In between hugs and greetings with old coaches and friends, Lansford, who was confined to a wheelchair as recently as 45 days ago, said he wanted to come home, ironically, to give back to the community that supported him through dark days.
"I couldn't have gotten through it without them," he said. "And I figured, now that I'm able to get up and walk around a little bit, I should come back and say thank you."
Prior to the Broncos' rivalry game with visiting South Gwinnett, the broad-shouldered, All-American looking warrior joked with coaches from his football days. One, while chatting about how good Lansford looked, asked if he had any eligibility left.
Lansford later said modestly that he still had "a lot of therapy left to do" before he was "walking like a normal person."
During a brief ceremony at halftime, Kautz gave out just her second ever key to the city (the first going to the aforementioned Aimee Copeland) and school officials presented an American flag (which flew over Camp Alamo in Afghanistan) and a large plaque.
As a standing ovation roared from the stands, each referee lined up to shake Lansford's hand before play resumed.
"Thank you for your service," the PA announcer boomed. "Thank you from Snellville, where everybody's proud to be somebody, and everybody's proud of Justin."