AURORA | Around 2:15 p.m., the massive door to the aircraft hangar at Buckley Air Force Base lurched open and almost 70 Colorado Army National Guardsmen marched through to raucous applause.
Several minutes passed before the cheering and applause stopped.
The soldiers of Detachment 1, Company B, 2nd Battalion, 135th General Support Aviation had spent the bulk of their one-year deployment in Afghanistan, operating Chinook helicopters. The massive helicopters are vital to moving troops and equipment around a country without many highways.
Last week’s ceremony marked the homecoming for the troops, many of whom have also served in Iraq.
“This is our family, and we are so happy to have them home,” Maj. Gen. H. Michael Edwards, Adjutant General of Colorado, told the crowd that packed metal bleachers in the hangar.
Gov. John Hickenlooper also addressed the crowd, thanking the soldiers for their service and accepting a Colorado flag that flew with the unit in Afghanistan from Capt. Anthony Morrison, detachment commander.
Throughout the deployment, the Guardsmen flew more than 6,000 hours, transported more than 48,000 troops, and moved more than 6.5 million pounds of cargo, the statement said.
The unit suffered one combat loss when Chief Warrant Officer 4 Dave Carter was killed in action along with 30 service members Aug. 6 when their helicopter was shot down over Wardak province.
The loss of the popular Chinook pilot hung over the ceremony as it did the bulk of the deployment.
“He was the heart and soul of our Colorado company,” Lt. Col. Eric Monteith said.
Staff Sgt. Edwin Thompson of Strasburg, said returning home without Carter, who he called a great instructor and friend, left a hole in the unit.
“He was a part of all of our lives,” said Thompson, who works as a flight engineer on Chinooks. “He touched every single one of us.”
For Thompson, this most-recent deployment came at a difficult time for his growing family.
Just a few days before he deployed, his son Greg was born.
Shortly thereafter, Thompson said goodbye to his newborn son, wife robin and 3-year-old daughter Clara and headed for Afghanistan.
“Fortunately, there’s Skype,” he said after last week’s ceremony. “That really helped.”
Thompson said he got to return home a few months ago on leave, but other than that he hadn’t seen his family aside from Skype for almost a year.
“It’s not the same as being able to interact with this little guy, but it helped a lot,” he said as Greg fidgeted in a stroller nearby.
The deployment was Thompson’s fourth, but the first since he became a father.
Being away from the family was tough, Thompson said, but in some ways having them just a phone call or video-chat away made the deployment easier than previous tours.
For Robin, raising her toddler and newborn while her husband was a world away was difficult.
“This time I was a whole lot busier,” she said.
That made the anticipation before his return last month that much harder.
“You couldn’t wait,” she said. “The last 10 minutes were the hardest.”
Many of the soldiers in the unit left with young children who had grown substantially by time the soldiers returned to American soil.
When Sgt. Jon Nicholas left last year, his 20-month-old son Rodney wasn’t even a year old yet. In the time he was gone, Rodney grew about a foot, he said.
“Got to see him grow up a little bit,” he said.
For Nicholas’ wife, Angelic, those regular Skype conversations were crucial. Even Rodney grew to like them, she said, scampering to the computer whenever he heard a conversation start.
Jacquelyn Baumgartner, 26, said the return of her husband, Tim, was a big relief.
If it hadn’t been for the regular conversations she had with him on Skype, Baumgartner said she wasn’t sure how she would have made it through a year without her husband.
Now that he is back with her and their 23-month-old daughter Jadyn, Baumgautner said she is adjusting.
“It hasn’t set in yet that he is not going to leave,” she said.