DIXON – Mayor Li Arellano Jr. returned home after serving almost a year deployment in the Middle East.
Arellano, a sergeant in the Army Reserves who previously served two combat tours in Iraq, was called to serve last year in the Homewood-based 317th Engineer Company as a construction squad leader.
The battalion was deployed to Kuwait, and he and his squad spent the bulk of their time in Saudi Arabia tasked with base construction and improvements. He oversaw eight to 11 people depending on the mission, all on their first deployment.
The transition was smooth, and he was able to keep up with his mayoral duties, but it was his first deployment away from his children. He and his wife Jamie have four: Ayla, 9, Charlotte, 7, Leo, 3, and Isabella, 1.
"The No. 1 thing I was excited about was spending time with my kids, and it's great being able to be around Dixon," Arellano said. "Being surrounded by nothing to coming back to all the spots I love with the people I love is easily the best part of being home."
Coming home took about a month longer than normal because of the coronavirus pandemic, and he traded one desert for another in New Mexico, where he quarantined after returning to the U.S. at Fort Bliss, Texas.
It then was a plane ride to Chicago and a fire and police escort to Homewood where the soldiers were released to their families. The next day he was back in Dixon.
"I jumped right back into being a dad. It's been really fun."
Coronavirus has shaken the world, but Arellano already was in locked down, remote locations, so there wasn't much of an impact during the deployment.
Video conferencing and other tech improvements in the last decade also made lines of communication smoother this time around, helping keep up with his family, his business and the city.
He was worried that COVID-19 would bring economic development projects to a standstill, but one of the city's biggest projects kept moving forward.
Details of the Gateway Project were released earlier this month, which will bring a major development on South Galena Avenue across from Walmart between Keul and Bloody Gulch roads.
The city and the Lee County Industrial Development Association are partnering with two commercial real estate developers, Xsite Real Estate of Burr Ridge and Walsh Partners of Elmhurst, to open up 27 acres near Interstate 88 for future hotels, restaurants and other businesses.
Infrastructure work could begin as early as spring 2021, and the project is expected to create more than 600 jobs and $1 million a year in new tax revenue.
There's also the Viaduct Point riverfront revitalization project, where the city and LCIDA secured about 13 parcels along the west end of the riverfront and downtown, about 10 acres stretching from the Peoria Avenue Bridge to the viaducts, for new development as well as extending the bike path.
Being home also means getting back to in-person chats with community members and seeing infrastructure improvements around town.
"I'm really glad to be back home and back at it," he said.
Arellano, 39, re-enlisted with a 6-year contract with the Reserves at the 485th Engineer Company in Machesney Park in March 2018, and he received his transfer orders to the 317th in June 2019.
He was elected in 2015 as Dixon’s first Latino mayor and its first under the city manager form of government; he was re-elected to his second 4-year term in April 2019.
Arellano owns Jimmy John’s in Dixon and Rock Falls and co-owns the Frosted Spoon in Rock Falls.
He went to Iraq on two combat tours, one in 2005 for 8 months and another in 2009 for a year.