A helicopter unit from the S.C. National Guard returned home Thursday to hugs, cheers and backslaps after a historic, yearlong mission to Afghanistan.
Sixty-eight soldiers of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 238th Aviation Regiment were greeted by flag-waving friends and families after their chartered flight landed at McEntire Joint National Guard Base near Eastover.
The detachment, which flies twin-rotor CH-47 transport helicopters, made history by being the first Army aviation unit to go from conception to combat in three years, Guard leaders said.
The mission was challenging, the unit's commander, Capt. Rob Rozetar said. Once the unit arrived in Afghanistan, it was split into three sections with soldiers dispatched to bases in eastern and southern Afghanistan.
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"It really stretched us thin," said Rozetar, a Clemson University graduate from Pottsville, Pa.
During its time in Afghanistan, the unit flew an assortment of missions, from air assault missions with special forces troops to hauling food and gear.
Many of the combat missions also involved coming under fire from Taliban forces while flying in hazardous weather and maneuvering at high altitudes in Afghanistan's treacherous mountain ranges.
"It sounds dangerous," one reporter said.
"It is," Rozetar answered, "but we don't tell our wives."
The Guardsmen brought home a box full of medals, including five Bronze Stars, a Meritorious Service Medal, one Purple Heart, and 90 Air Medals.
"It was long, strenuous work," said Spc. Jacob Rodgers, a 12-year Guard veteran from Hartsville. "Everybody played their part and everybody did a great job."
While Rodgers, who went to Iraq in 2004-05 with a Guard artillery unit, said he "enjoyed" the deployment, his wife, Sandy, was glad it was over.
"It doesn't feel like he has been away for a year," Sandy Rodgers said. "It seems like it's been forever."
For Cpl. Brian Richards, Thursday's homecoming marked the end of back-to-back deployments and having to spend three years away from his family.
Richards, of Woodrow, left in January 2007 to go to Mississippi and train with the Guard's 218th Brigade Combat Team before it deployed to Afghanistan.
After returning with the 218th in May 2008, Richards transferred to the aviation unit. He left home again for several weeks to train for his new job. Then, he deployed in November 2008 with the Chinook unit.
"My wife asked me if I was going again, and I said, 'No way,'" Richards said. "It's good to be home."
While there was plenty to celebrate about the unit's return, Chief Warrant Officer Shawn Miller's son, Brett, 7, had a job in mind when they returned home to Easley.
"We're going to build a tree house," Brett said.
Miller laughed, looked at Brett, and said, "I know we've got a lot of plans."