Amidst calls of "We love you" and "You're our hero," U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Brian Langeliers -- standing tall and rigid in his crisp Leatherneck uniform -- nervously stared down at throngs of admiring Payson Elementary School students.
"I have to admit, I was a little choked up," he said. "Having all those kids saying those things was very special."
Langeliers returned Feb. 7 to PES, a school he attended in the mid-1990s, to receive a handmade quilt the kindergarten students in Mary Ann Runzo's classes had designed and sewn for him.
When the quilt was finished last fall, it couldn't be mailed to Langeliers because he was without communication while being moved from his former military assignment in Afghanistan to a training base in Hawaii.
"But, I knew about the quilt," he said. "When I had access to the Internet, I would read the Payson Roundup. There was a story in there about it."
For Langeliers, the kindergartners' class project turned out to be a huge morale booster.
"It meant so much to me to know they did that. I remember thinking ‘this is so cool'," Langeliers said.
Just minutes after the students presented the quilt to Langeliers, the U.S. Marine found himself surrounded by swarms of passionate admirers.
Later, as he watched teachers line up the young students and march them away to classrooms, he paused a few seconds to recall his days at the elementary school.
"I was sent to the principal's office a lot," he said. "I guess I must have caused some trouble, but I liked going to school.
"I still remember having a lot of fun in Mrs. (Donna) Reid's first-grade class and Mrs. (Sally) Rohrback's second grade."
After leaving PES and moving on to Rim Country Middle and Payson High schools, Langeliers built a reputation as a standout track and field and cross country runner.
His exploits included running legs on 4x400 and 4x800 relay teams that still hold school records.
Following his graduation from PHS in 2003, he immediately joined the U.S. Marine Corps.
"That was something he always wanted to do," said PES fifth-grade teacher and Langeliers family friend, Bruce Haught.
After graduation from boot camp and the Marine School of Infantry in November 2004, Langeliers was assigned to a base in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii for advanced training.
From there, he was transferred to Afghanistan where he served a seven-month tour of duty.
The time he served there deeply affected him.
"We were in several firefights and being shot at changes the way you look at life. It can end for you at any time," he said. "I think it kind of makes you stronger."
While in Afghanistan, Langeliers also developed a sincere empathy for the country's people.
"It is unreal how poor the people are," he said. "I couldn't help but feel for them. If they earn $200 a year, it would be a lot of money."
Following his stint in Afghanistan, Langeliers returned to Kaneohe Bay to receive more training for a September deployment to Iraq.
When he arrives in Iraq, Langeliers expects to be stationed in the Sunni Triangle located north of Baghdad -- one of the most dangerous areas in the country for U.S. soldiers.
"It'll be hairy, but going to Iraq is why I joined the Marine Corps," he said.
As Langeliers, now on two weeks' leave in Payson, mulls over his deployment to the war zone, he says his ultimate goal is to complete his four-year enlistment and then attend Arizona State University.
"Having parents that are both teachers, I've learned it's important to get a good education," he said. "By being in the Marines and going to college, I should have one of the best."