– In every sense of the word, folks will make sure their troops get a warm welcome when a Litchfield-based unit of the Minnesota National Guard returns home in a few days from a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan.

In bedrooms and living rooms and in church basements over the course of the past year, various groups and individuals have made quilts for the 95 soldiers; each an individual design, many thickly emblazoned with flags and eagles, and red and white and blue.

On Dec. 31 this year, NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan expires, ending 13 years of foreign military presence since U.S.-led troops ousted the ­Taliban in 2001.

If much of the country has moved on from its decadelong experience of fighting two wars, Litchfield has not, even as the tiny armory of the 849th Mobility Augmentation Company across from the Lutheran Church has remained largely empty. The same could be said for other Guard and Reserve units across the country, ­including 150 ­Minnesota Guard soldiers from a Duluth-based transportation company who remain in Afghanistan. Or 950 Oregon Guard soldiers who are likely heading out this summer to be among the last U.S. troops there.

The absence of the Litchfield unit, which cleared roads of explosives, was made more pronounced when five soldiers were injured earlier this year in a bomb blast at their Afghan base.

“People may have forgotten, but Litchfield hasn’t,” said Sgt. 1st Class John McCann, a recruiter in Litchfield.

It’s not hard to find connections in Litchfield, a community of about 6,600 about 65 miles west of the Twin Cities. One of McCann’s sons is among those deployed. Besides his Guard duties, McCann is the commander of the Nelsan-Horton American Legion Post 104 in town. His wife, Sharon, heads the Meeker County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon campaign, which helps families of the deployed adjust to the realities of their loved one’s absence.

McCann and Joe Berube, commander of the local VFW Post, served in Iraq together in the Guard. Berube’s father was also a commander of the local VFW.

“In a small town it’s like when your own son deploys,” McCann said. “They are all my sons, I want them all back. When they deploy, I pray for them and use every asset we can to get them to come back and be with us.”

At a ceremony at the Litchfield Civic Arena, Mayor Keith Johnson, a former music teacher over at the high school, led a packed crowd of more than 500 in a rendition of “Happy Trails” when the unit departed.

“Small-town America still has that great American pride,” Johnson said. “The bigger cities, I wouldn’t even know. When they are deployed out of our National Guard armory, this town kicks in really well.”

The unit left Afghanistan last week and is scheduled back in town within the next couple days after being processed at a military base in Texas. Yet the sense of mission in Litchfield isn’t likely to end when the troops come home and the quilts have been distributed.

The city puts up 40 or 50 flags on poles along the driveway of Ripley Cemetery for Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend; Mayor Johnson has asked the administrator to keep them up full time because it has proved so popular.

Every Memorial Day and Armistice Day, Johnson takes his old trumpet out to the cemetery. He’ll stand by himself next to the Civil War monument and play “Taps,” “God Bless America,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Malmberg on a mission

But by far the most ambitious display of connection with the troops has been the quilt project, and the headquarters for the effort as been Dorelle Malmberg’s modest rambler in town. If the 77-year-old Malmberg is awake, there’s a good chance she’s got some materials in her fingers. She is the proud owner of a 16-foot Gammill longarm quilting machine in her basement, which was used so much during production it recently had to be taken to St. Cloud for repairs. Business cards she distributes for the custom machine quilting she does say “Love Knots,” with hearts for the “o” letters.

Dorelle and a friend, Janet Smith, began the campaign more than a year ago, part of a national group called Quilts of Valor. After word spread, more than $700 was quickly collected for materials. Others have jumped in. Quilters have included a group of 12-year-old girls from a church group and experts whose intricate stitching subtlety shows a pattern of flying geese. The effort has been so successful they even have quilts left over.

Love sewn in

“You want to convey your love as a community, your concern for their well-being,” Dorelle said. “They come home from war and they have scars in their hearts from fighting and seeing the things they have seen. With the love that is sewn into the quilt, they will feel better. When they get a time of feeling bad, they can touch the quilt and say, ‘Somebody thought I was doing OK.’ ”

Each quilt will be presented in a special pillowcase and includes a label verifying it as a Quilt of Valor. One mother has done two quilts for two sons. But with a few exceptions, quilters didn’t know who they were quilting for. Only the first name of the quilter is included, to ensure the recipient doesn’t feel an obligation to contact the maker.

Although many would be expensive to purchase, the quilts are expected to be used, particularly when they might be needed the most.

“We want them to have it on the couch,” Dorelle said. “These quilts are full of love and we want them to drain the love out of them.”