By CourtesySeptember 24, 2016
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - Flurries of snow and a noticeable chill were in the air on Fort Wainwright outside of Hangar 6 Tuesday night, Sept. 29, as Soldiers assigned to the 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, stepped back into the 49th state near the end of a nine-month deployment.
Inside the hangar, an anxious crowd hoped for the short ceremony to begin soon.
Among the fanfare, many family members and friends brought signs to express their excitement. One displayed a message for one of the soon-to-arrive aviation Soldiers. It read, "Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but my name's Alan, and I'm your baby."
As the final 30 minutes passed, children ran in full-speed sprints around the lectern, adorned with the USARAK patch. Two medical Black Hawk helicopters were parked at either side of the hangar bay doors, emphasizing the mission that USARAK's medevac Soldiers had just returned from.
As the final moments counted down, volunteers from VFW Post #3629 in Fairbanks took their places, forming the flag line where the 175 newly-returned Soldiers would soon stand.
A loud buzz-alarm sounded the warning, its flashing orange light signaling the ceremonial moment of return. The darkness outside gave way to bright lights and cheery smiles inside, giving welcome to the slow moving formation, marching to the sound of the 9th U.S. Army Band.
Following a short invocation, the U.S. Army Alaska Aviation Task Force's senior aviator, Col. Nick Snelson, kept it short.
"Welcome back. We're immensely proud of you," Snelson said. "We are so, so happy to see you back. What separates you from your loved ones, friends and a good time, is a yellow line, about 20 feet and for me to stop speaking. Welcome back. We are going to talk more about your accomplishments in the December ceremony. But for right now, I'm done, and you are released."
Cheers and laughter followed as families and friends were reunited.
"It's great to be home," Spc. Adam Richter said.
Originally from Salem, Missouri, Richter spent his time in Alpha Company during the deployment. He happily cradled his 9-month-old son, Brantley Alexander.
"I'm glad to be back with my family," Richter said. "I got to see him be born, but then left."
His wife, Stephany, stood nearby. Introducing her, Richter mentioned that she was a stay-at-home mom, adding, "She did an amazing job."
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Daniel Harrington, a pilot assigned to Charlie Company, said, "It feels great to be back."
He and his wife Brittany arrived in Fairbanks only a few weeks before his leaving on deployment. He is from Hiram, Ohio, not far from Cleveland. Having joined the Air Force in 2004, he switched into the U.S. Army as a Black Hawk pilot in 2011.
"Providing support, closing up was a lot of the mission," Harrington said of his time in Afghanistan.
With his 19-month-old son, Wylder, in his arms, the family was pleased to pose for a picture. Harrington's final quote was simply: "Dustoff," which is the Charlie Company motto.
"It was a great, rewarding deployment," the commander of Charlie Company, Maj. Chappell, from Cincinnati, said.
"Medevac was our one and only mission, taking care of Americans and our Afghani partners. We were running casualty evacuations with these aircraft, the ones with the red cross," he said, pointing to the Black Hawk on display nearby inside the hangar.
"It's good to be home, and it will be nice when the rest of the task force shows up," Chapell said.
He explained that a majority of the Alpha, Bravo and Charlie companies had returned that night.
"With an element from Delta and the Headquarters and Headquarters Company," he said. "The biggest thing for me is that I still have two platoons in Afghanistan. Otherwise, everyone is pretty much wrapping things up, crossing the T's and dotting the I's."
This is the first group of the more than 400 aviation Soldiers returning over the next two months as their nine-month deployment to southern and western Afghanistan comes to an end. A final uncasing of the colors is scheduled to occur in December.