'An amazing homecoming' -- medical unit redeploys
July 25, 2012
FORT BENNING, Ga. (July 25, 2012) -- More than 50 Soldiers who deployed last July with the 463rd Medical Detachment (Veterinary Services) returned safely Saturday to Fort Benning to the applause of waiting friends and Family.
"I'm anxious. I'm happy. I'm overjoyed. I'm nervous. It's like you don't know what to feel," said Carolyn Wilborn, the mother of Staff Sgt. Khadija St. Ann. "When they first leave, it's like your heart flies with them."
St. Ann's friends and Family, including her husband and four children, ages 1 to 19, took one of the front rows in Freedom Hall. Wilborn said they had a banner, flowers and a meal of dressing, collard greens and chicken waiting for their Soldier at home.
"When she comes home, it's like Christmas every time," she said. "I love it. I feel like she is living the dream that I had. I always wanted to go into the military. But things didn't work out for me. And when she grew up, it's like she went in and did what I always wanted to do. And I've always been proud for it. She's been in 16 years, and I'm just so blessed."
The welcome ceremony, which began shortly before midnight, was brief. Col. William Drennon, commander of 14th Combat Support Hospital, congratulated the troops on their work in Afghanistan.
"Mission accomplished -- in a big way; they did a great job," he said. "They provided support to 125 different forward operating bases and contingency operating bases. They were diligent, and they brought all those folks back. They didn't lose anybody."
Led by Lt. Col. Scott Hanna and 1st Sgt. Anthony Lee, the detachment had two main assignments: food inspection and animal medicine.
Each area had a team of one veterinarian, a vet technician and one or more food inspectors, depending on the base's size, said Staff Sgt. Diane Fordham, a squad leader who mainly dealt with food inspection in the Kandahar province.
"We inspected MREs, any operation rations, any food coming up to the installation," she said.
"If the food were to get contaminated, then the mission would fail. Soldiers have to be strong. If they're not healthy, then it's going to be impossible for them to accomplish the mission."
Food contaminants can be intentional, such as biohazardous material, or unintentional, such as glass accidentally dropped in.
"We're able to detect both," Fordham said.
While Soldiers primarily dealt with one aspect of the mission, they had to be able to handle both.
Caring for the military and contractor working dogs was essential because the trained animals often stood between a potential risk and the troops, Fordham said.
"The working dogs are the ones who go out on patrol with the handlers," she said. "They detect IEDs, bombs, drugs. They protect the troops so they can identify those hazards before they actually make it out there. They're putting their lives at risk for the Soldiers, so we have to make sure they're healthy. When they get injured, we have to make sure they get the proper care to go back out or to redeploy."
On the homefront, the Family readiness group and rear detachment took care of those left behind. Up to the final moments, as the incoming flight suffered a number of delays, Kristi Hanna, the commander's wife, kept Family members in the loop regarding the expected arrival.
"(She) did an excellent job of keeping us updated," said Kimberly Heryford, as she awaited the return of her husband, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Christopher Heryford. "She constantly let us know. She took the burden, and she made it easy for us to be ready because she let us know in plenty of time."
Though it's the second time the couple has been separated because of deployment -- the warrant officer served in Iraq seven years ago -- Kimberly Heryford said this one was different. She was home-schooling her two youngest children, David, 15, and Evan, 12, while anticipating an overseas move.
"We've been living in a hotel for the last month because we're actually PCSing to Germany," said the mother of four. "I've already sold the car … rented the house. We'll be flying out Aug. 13."
Only minutes away from reuniting with her husband, Kimberly Heryford said she felt relieved and excited.
"I'm glad to have my best friend back," she said. "The year went insanely fast, and I'm very thankful we packed every moment full. At times I thought, 'What am I doing?' But in the end, it was time and I look back and think 'I did it.'"
Sarah Heryford, a rising junior at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, said the first deployment wasn't as hard for her because she was much younger. The 20-year-old went to school in Columbus so she could help out around the house while her dad was gone.
"It feels nice to have my dad coming home and just be a normal Family again," she said. "A big burden will be lifted off our shoulders."
Both mother and daughter stayed busy during their Soldier's absence. They started training for a half-marathon in Paris soon after the unit deployed.
While this deployment has been the toughest yet, Kimberly Heryford said she got through it by not only staying occupied but also trusting that her husband was well trained for his assignment.
"We've been in the Army for 20 years now," she said. "I fully trust that he's prepared in any way you can be for the known and the unknown. I believe the whole unit has come back definitely stronger and more knowledgeable about their jobs. They'll go on from here, I think, and be better Soldiers."
The yearlong tour in Afghanistan was a first for Capt. Ross Coniglio, who hugged his wife and 15-month-old daughter as soon as he was released from formation.
"It's an amazing homecoming," he said. "It's something you look forward to the day you leave. It was an amazing opportunity to serve the Army, serve our country … do what we get to do and then come back home. It's just such a wonderful feeling."