On the 226th day of deployment, a military chartered 767-300 plane will land on a strip of the Miami International Airport carrying up to 100 Army soldiers returning from combat duty in Afghanistan.
The Miami-based U.S. Army 841st Engineer Battalion one of the last of its kind to deploy to the war-ravaged country for Operation Enduring Freedom was scheduled to arrive Sunday but arrived Monday morning after spending six months working to build a $27 million camp in the northern region of Afghanistan that will be used as staging headquarters for troop departures as part of the military drawdown.
And with the mission accomplished, the unit arrives from a 400-day deployment almost six months early and days after the 11th anniversary of the horrific 9/11 terrorist attack that triggered what is now Americas longest running war. Twenty-six soldiers are staying behind to manage the final chapters.
Once a group of young students, police officers, carpenters and pilots bound by service, the unit became members of Task Force Hurricane, playing a role in completing the larger mission to dismantle the deadly force of al-Qaida, bring stability to Afghanistan and shift the military into more of an advisory role as American troops begin to withdraw. In announcing a peaceful transition of the country back to the Afghan government earlier this year, U.S. military officials said some 23,000 troops will return home this year.
The soldiers of the TF Hurricane performed magnificently under the most challenging circumstances during their deployment, says Lt. Col. William Clete Schaper in an interview. Their service and sacrifice made a difference in northern Afghanistan that will last for years to come.
Like any soldier called to duty, the members of the 841st return to homes that have changed in ways big and small. While they served nearly 8,000 miles away in a dusty terrain of rural villages, back in South Florida three babies were born, some meeting their fathers for the first time via Skype. A soldiers toddler learned to say daddy while he was gone. The grandparents of several soldiers died. Two wives faced illnesses.
Overall, this was a clean deployment. No deaths or serious injuries, says Janette Chandler, the units Family Readiness Support Assistant, as she rushed to complete a Welcome Home program for Sunday afternoon at Miami Dade Colleges north campus. They were in Afghanistan completing their mission but much of what happened to them actually happened back here.
Most everyday, Chandler dealt with the spouses and other family members, making phone calls to get routine matters done, referring resources and often simply listening. Its difficult for the people left behind, but they understand the soldiers are away on a mission, she says.
Last Saturday, in preparation for the homecoming, Chandler hosted an all-day Yellow Ribbon event to prepare relatives for the units return. About one-third will also return unemployed, which can be a stress trigger. They will be invited to attend a job fair Sept. 25 in Palm Beach County.
Our soldiers will come back changed in some way or another. They will be different, Chandler says. Some will be withdrawn. Some will not want to interact with people outside of their fellow soldiers. Some may have psychological difficulties or difficulty in readjusting to civilian life. We want the people left behind to understand this, to recognize the signs and be able to be supportive.