By Nick DukeJune 26, 2013
FORT BENNING, Ga., (June 26, 2013) -- More than 100 Soldiers assigned to the 14th Combat Support Hospital were reunited with their Families June 19 during a welcome home ceremony at Freedom Hall after a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.
"It's just a mix of emotions and joy to be home," said Staff Sgt. Joel Arriolacolmenares moments after being reunited with his wife, Heather, and 2-year-old son, Elijah. "I'm just glad to be back home in the U.S., be back here with Family and be back at Fort Benning, which is our own community away from our home in Texas. We love it here, and we're just glad to be back."
Like many in the 14th CSH, it was not Arriolacolmenares' first deployment. However, it was his first deployment since the birth of his son, something he said made the time overseas tougher.
"It's hard because when I left, he wasn't even talking or walking and as the months went by, I would see him talking and walking and now he's just having full-on conversations," he said. "I know I missed a lot of big milestones, but I'm glad to be home now."
Despite the challenges he faced, Arriolacolmenares said deploying can be an inspirational experience, as bonds within units are often strengthened by the experience.
"They're all hard because of the separation and you have to get used to being away and the new workload," he said. "But, once you figure things out, everyone pulls together and it's pretty awesome."
Staff Sgt. Joey Goyette was reunited with his wife, Amanda, and 10-month-old daughter Nora.
Goyette said he was thankful for modern technology, as it allowed him to watch his daughter grow from thousands of miles away.
"It was amazing with the technology," he said. "A good Internet connection made it so I could see her on Skype and I got to watch her grow up. It's a big improvement on what our forefathers had, and I was able to sing to her and record songs for her."
In addition to the emotions displayed by the returning Soldiers, emotions were also running high among the Family members in attendance.
Before the ceremony, Elizabeth Mokler, the sister of Capt. Robert Walker, a medical officer who works with logistics and administration, said she was looking forward to having her brother's light-hearted personality back in her life.
"I just want to give him a big hug and tell him how much we've missed him and how much we appreciate the sacrifice of him having to leave his Family and how happy we are to have him back here safe," she said. "My brother is definitely full of life. He loves to have a good time, so we've missed his humor and the presence that he has. It kind of felt like a void. It just hasn't been as cheerful without him, so it's going to bring back a lot to our lives to have him home."
Debra Belle was in attendance with 7-year-old Mark Arnold, who was being reunited with his mother, Capt. Lakesha Williams.
However, Belle said he had not been able to truly anticipate his mother's arrival, as he was not told she was coming home until just before leaving to come to the ceremony.
"We had decided we'd tell him shortly before she got here," Belle said. "About 15 minutes before we left home, he thought he was going to Bible study."
Arnold, who is diagnosed with cerebral palsy, was excited to know that his mother would be home before his eighth birthday on July 5.
"It's a miracle," he said.
Col. Jeff Johnson, the commander of the 44th Medical Brigade, the higher command for 14th CSH, said the welcome home ceremony was a great night not only for the brigade, but the Army as a whole.
"When we talk about being Army Strong, we talk about Families being a critical part of what Army Strong is," Johnson said. "We get a chance to be able to see that fully played out tonight, as these expectations over the course of the last couple of weeks finally come together."
The 14th CSH, commanded by Col. William Drennon, served as a multifunctional medical task force with 600 Soldiers, making up teams on 57 forward operating bases across Afghanistan.
Soldiers from 14th CSH also made up three surgical teams in surgical hospitals with Spanish and British partners and worked in a variety of areas, including blood support, dentistry, X-ray, pharmacy, laboratory, preventive medicine, combat stress and veterinary detachments.
The unit performed more than 1,500 surgeries, executed more than 1,500 medical evacuation missions, completed 52,000 laboratory tests, filled 12,000 prescriptions and took more than 21,000 X-rays.
"Tonight's a great night to be able to see the 14th CSH come home from an outstanding mission for the last nine months in Afghanistan," Johnson said. "They left in September with 249 individuals strong, and came back today with 249, as well, so to me that's exactly what mission success looks like. Everybody goes, everybody comes back as a team."
During the 14th CSH's time in Afghanistan, the "died-of-wounds" success rate for Soldiers in Afghanistan was 98 percent, meaning that if Soldiers were alive when placed under the care of the 14th CSH, 98 percent were able to leave the theater of war alive.
"It was an awesome performance, but they were well-trained before they went," Drennon said. "They knew what to do, so it was just a matter of getting out there and doing it."
In addition to caring for wounded Soldiers, members of the 14th CSH were also tasked with providing veterinary care; something Johnson said was instrumental in fostering good will between Soldiers and the Afghan people.
"The country is an agrarian culture, where the herd and the crops mean everything to them, sometimes more than family members," Johnson said. "For us to be there supporting their herds, immunizing them, taking care of whatever problems take place is something that is unquestionably a motivator for the Afghans."
However, Drennon said one of the most important accomplishments came when the unit returned home.
"It's dangerous when you deploy, so to be able to bring them all home again to their Families is a huge accomplishment, and I'm very proud of it," he said.