MILWAUKEE - Emotions ran high Dec. 13 as families began to gather in the Milwaukee Room at General Mitchell International Airport. Melissa Kluka was one of the first to arrive at the airport, anxiously awaiting the arrival of her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Jason Kluka.
As Kluka's wife waited alongside their daughter, Mya, she grabbed an extra pack of tissues and a bottle of water. She waited for about 10 minutes before walking over to the concourse gate to wait there, almost 45 minutes before her husband's flight was scheduled to land.
"I'm excited to be on vacation," Melissa Kluka said. "We're not going anywhere, but I took time off. From here, we're going to go surprise his other two children, my step-children."
Kluka is a member of the Sussex, Wisconsin-based Battery A, 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery. He is one of the approximately 80 soldiers that deployed with the unit to Afghanistan in April. Battery A was the second Wisconsin Army National Guard high mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) battery to conduct fire mission support in Afghanistan.
Approximately 40 soldiers from the unit were reunited with their families and loved ones after landing safely in Milwaukee. The remainder of Alpha Battery is concluding its mission in Afghanistan, which will transition Jan. 1, 2015 from Operation Enduring Freedom to Operation Resolute Support.
The flights that carried the Soldiers returning home were staggered throughout the afternoon with the last flight arriving around 10 p.m.
Soldiers were greeted at the gate by Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, deputy adjutant general for Army, and Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Shields, the Wisconsin Army National Guard's senior noncommissioned officer, before making the walk up the concourse to be reunited with their families.
As they approached the concourse, Soldiers were greeted with music played by the Wisconsin National Guard's 132nd Army Band, followed by hugs from family member as they walked past the security checkpoint.
Before Soldier departed the airport, they were sent off with encouraging words from the senior leadership.
"Phenomenal job," Dunbar said. "You may never really know how much you've contributed to our nation by serving in Afghanistan, but you guys did a tremendous job. Well done!"
Dunbar also gave a message of thanks to the families present. Both Shields and Anderson took the time to give thanks and reiterate how important the families are.
"For all the family members in the back, these Soldiers could not do what they do without the love and support of each and every one of you," Anderson said. "The support that you provide to your individual Soldier directly affects the success of this organization as a whole. What they've accomplished in theater is a result not only of their capabilities, but the love and the support of all the family members that are standing behind you, so thank you for your support."
One such supporter is Katie Wheelan, the wife of Staff Sgt. Matthew Wheelan. She said her family didn't understand why she was happy for her husband on his deployment.
"They asked, 'Don't you want him to stay safe?" Wheelan said. "You don't join basketball just to sit on the bench ó you want to play. This is his job. He wants to do this, and he's good at it."
The couple has a daughter named Charlotte who is 16 months old. When Wheelan left for his deployment, Charlotte wasn't even crawling. When he arrived at the airport Saturday, his daughter slowly walked to him. It was the first time that he had ever seen his daughter walk.
As Soldiers left the airport with their families, many of them expressed how good it felt that they would be able to spend Christmas with their families. As Sgt. Steven Eckels walked with his family towards their car carrying a duffle bag on his back and another on his front, he had a huge smile on his face.
"I try not to," Eckels joked. "But then I just have this huge feeling of happiness inside."
Since arriving in Afghanistan, Battery A has provided 24-hour HIMARS fire support to a joint special operations task force. The unit's fire support operations provided coverage for nearly half of Afghanistan and supported more than 200 combat missions.
The unit deployed twice previously to Iraq in 2006 and 2009.