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South Florida soldiers, their duty done, return from Afghanistan

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 America’s 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 soldier’s 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 unit’s Family Readiness Support Assistant, as she rushed to complete a Welcome Home program for Sunday afternoon at Miami Dade College’s 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. “It’s 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 unit’s 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.’’

Specialist Jonathan Bettis returns to a wife recovering from surgery she had last week. Three months after Bettis deployed, his wife Michele discovered a tumor in her uterus. After a biopsy and other tests, the couple, who have two sons and live in Opa-locka, learned the tumor was benign but had to be removed.

“I told him immediately, but I also told him that I needed for him to focus on the job. Even though he wanted to be here with me, I told him if he didn’t focus, he could put his life and the rest of the platoon in danger,’’ said Michele Bettis, who, with the aid of Family Readiness, is now a student at Miami Dade College. “It was a very worrisome time but I know that I am in God’s hands, and my husband needed to continue protecting our country.’’

On Feb. 5, just after Sunday sunrise, the battalion took a chartered flight to Fort Bliss, Texas, for a month of training before they traveled overseas. Of the 162 originally deployed, about 100 returned home, 26 stayed in Afghanistan and the remaining numbers are still in Texas dealing with medical issues or being processed for an eventual return.

“I am ready to be back with my family, my wife and two children and to return to my life. I had a good experience, and back home everything was well, no major issues and everybody is healthy, which allowed me to focus on my work,’’ said Staff Sgt. Humberto Torres, 52, of Kendall, who worked in telecommunications while there and also served in Desert Storm. “But I am a 100 percent soldier, so if the country needs me, I will deploy again.’’

The battalion joined German soldiers in training Afghans, managing public works projects, clearing routes and constructing and repairing bridges rocked by roadside bombs. They worked in and around small rural villages with dirt roads and goat trails in a region near the Hindo Kush mountains. They worked in desert conditions where roadside bombs occasionally detonated. They were ambushed by insurgents, including multiple times in the Chimtal District, a hostile area in the Balkh Province.

“One of our biggest challenges was also dealing with the heat and getting hit by the dust bowls. The sand was fine like powder and would get everywhere, all over your face, in your eyes, and you could inhale it,’’ says Specialist Franz Eliscard who worked in Deh Dadi II as a heavy equipment mechanic and left behind a wife and 13-month-old triplet boys. “You couldn’t see someone two feet in front of you.’’

In some ways, it is a mission measured in numbers: the unit accomplished 75 combat security assignments, 263 route clearance assignments, and 35 logistics distribution assignments. The maintenance platoon repaired 400 pieces of equipment. For their effort, members of the unit were awarded six Bronze Star medals and 108 Army commendation medals. Combat Action badges were also awarded to a team attacked by insurgent fire outside of Camp Ghormach.

There was something else less tangible at work too: American troops worked to help uplift the image of the Afghan soldiers and build their credibility among their own villagers as control is ceded back to the country.

“Success for us means we are doing less and the Afghans are doing more,’’ says 2nd Lt. Brittany Ramos, 23.

The Miami Gardens soldier is among the 26 staying in Afghanistan until December to help manage the ongoing projects.

“I definitely miss my loved ones but can’t leave the position unfulfilled,’’ she says. “This is my duty.’’