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After a grim year in Afghanistan, Chinook unit is home at last

The two jets zipped onto the runway of the New Century AirCenter in Johnson County, landing within minutes of each other.

For those watching, the planes carried the most precious of cargo: Army Reservists of the 7/158th Aviation Battalion — 82 men and nine women from the Kansas City area — finally home after one especially grueling year in Afghanistan.

As they filed off their planes, the wind blustered so hard that the giant flag hooked to a fire truck boom streamed horizontally.

But even March winds couldn’t muffle the cheers or the happiness from this crowd.

Samantha Gaughan cuddled her 2-year-old girl, Honor.

“It’s been 368 days,” sighed the military wife, who’s been through three deployments. Early Thursday morning, she and her kids painted the back of their SUV with white paint declaring happily to the world that they were “picking up our soldier!!!!!”

“This has been a tough slog for us,” she said as the families were directed inside the unit’s hangar. “Now, we’re worried about Iran. But I won’t think about that today.”

There have been lots of dark nights of worry for families of this unit. The worst: in August, when a Chinook with three men of the 7/158th and dozens of Navy SEALS aboard, including Matt Mason of Kearney, was knocked down by insurgent fire. Thirty-eight Americans died.

Several in the waiting crowd wore T-shirts remembering Spc. Spencer Duncan, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brian Nichols and Sgt. Alex Bennett.

The month before, a Chinook had a hard landing, injuring Ezekiel Crozier and Kirk Kuykendall. The men were told at one point Crozier probably wouldn’t live.

But both men were waiting in this crowd, too, to welcome home their buddies.

During this deployment, the war in Afghanistan seemed to grow even darker and more dangerous. Outrage followed the viral photos of Marines urinating on enemy corpses. After the burnings of the Qur’an came riots and six assassinations of U.S. personnel by supposedly loyal Afghans.

The 7/158th was tasked to deliver rubber bullets to all forward operating bases in eastern Afghanistan as a way to stop rioters without killing them.

Then this month: A U.S. staff sergeant allegedly slipped away from his post to slaughter 17 Afghan civilians.

“We’re not going to let one soldier represent all the military,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jason “Tank” Sherman, pilot and now instructor with the 7/158th. He deployed with the battalion to Afghanistan in 2006. “These guys went over there and did their job, just like thousands of other soldiers are doing their job right now.”

Sherman talked and emailed almost daily with his comrades; he knows how much hardship and emotions this unit gritted through.

Many wives said they cried a lot these last few months.

“All of this really hit us,” said Kristen Hudson as she waited for her husband Dave. “I was sad for those Afghan families but I’m so relieved my husband is coming home, and then I feel bad because I know there are Americans who are still over there.”

She shook her head.

“I tried to hide fear from our two children, but they’re older now. I’m glad this is almost over.”

Dave texted her that morning while boarding his charter at Fort Hood, Texas. The soldiers had spent the last week there turning in equipment and preparing to return to civilian life.

Away from the crowd, a couple stood apart. A mother was crying, her husband at her side. Megan and Dale Duncan weren’t there to see their son. They’d buried him after the August crash.

But they wanted to feel the happiness of the other families — and to leave a message.

“I want everyone who loved Spencer to know it’s OK to move on,’ said Megan Duncan. “To go on and enjoy their lives. That’s what Spencer would want them to do. We have a big God who is taking care of all of us and them, too.

“This is beautiful to see them home.”

In the hangar, the crowd quieted, waiting. A loud buzzer sounded, and the hangar door, about the size of 20 civilian garage doors, lifted — as impressive as any Broadway curtain.

There the troops stood, in formation, before marching inside. Eyes searched frantically for their loved ones.

“Wow, he’s really lost weight,” said one father.

“I see him! I see him!” screamed a little boy, tugging on his mom’s hand.

Cameras flashed. Video cameras hummed. A short prayer from Chaplain Ho Kim. A brief speech of thanks by Col. Michael Claybourne, commander of the 244th Aviation Brigade at Fort Dix, N.J. Everyone still waiting

Then the hangar echoed with one shouted word:

“Dissssssmissed.”

And the shouting — and the hugging, and the kissing and the crying —

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