Soldiers and family members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 829th Engineer Company have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving as the unit landed safely on U.S. soil Nov. 25 after a six-month deployment to Afghanistan.
The 160-Soldier unit returned to Fort Bliss, Texas, where it will go through the de-mobilization process before returning to Wisconsin.
"It was a wonderful feeling," said Staff Sgt. Nicole Pingel, of Ashland, Wisconsin. "It really was. Just to walk off that plane is one of those feelingsÖit's awesome."
The unit, headquartered out of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, left the Badger State in early April before mobilizing at Fort Bliss enroute to Afghanistan.
While there, the 829th was responsible for de-constructing coalition structures and facilities, thereby denying the use of those materials to the enemy. The unit also recovered, organized and redistributed military materials in an effort to save taxpayer money and set the stage for the reduction of the U.S. troop presence in the country.
The unit acquitted itself well on its mission ó completing the teardown of three forward operating bases and reducing the U.S. footprint another forward operating base as well as at Bagram Airfield. All told, the unit's Soldiers put in more than 132,000 labor hours, reduced more structures than any other de-construction team and turned in approximately $17.6 million worth of military equipment while operating from four separate locations across two regional commands.
"You represent the best that our country has to offer, and I'm so proud of each and every one of you," Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Shields, Wisconsin's senior enlisted advisor, told the troops shortly after they had arrived in Texas.
Shields was joined by other senior Wisconsin National Guard leaders including Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, the state's adjutant general and Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, the assistant adjutant general for Army, in welcoming the troops off the plane.
"I'm proud of you. I think it takes an awful lot of guts to stand up and raise your right hand and swear to defend our country - then go through the rigor of hard training and earn the uniform you're wearing," Dunbar said. "But it's something even more special to serve your nation in a combat zone. I want to welcome all of you home and thank you for your service to our country."
Anderson had a similar message after urging the Soldiers to move through the de-mobilization process deliberately and learn about the benefits they had earned.
"At some point in your career, you chose to raise your right hand and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic," he said. "And you've just returned fulfilling part of that obligation.
"As one fellow American and one fellow service member to another, I want to say, ëthank you,' for what you have done and what you continue to do in the service of this country."
Many of the returning Soldiers spoke of the excitement of reuniting with loved ones, starting new careers or going back to school. In one Soldier's case, she was looking forward to starting a whole new chapter of her life.
"I had just graduated, so I have no home or anything, so I'm going to find my own apartment, get my own car, hopefully find a new job, and now I have educational benefits, so hopefully I'll go back to school," said Spc. Laura Van Remortel, of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Van Remortel graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a biology degree in December 2013 before deploying to Afghanistan as part of a deconstruction team. She now hopes to start a career working with animals or go back to school to pursue a graduate degree or another undergraduate degree.
The deployment was a great experience, she said, because she met so many new people and got to be a part of something bigger.
"What was really cool was we actually got to shut down some of the airfields and give them back to the Afghan people," she said.
Like Van Remortel, Spc. Johnathon Dittman, of Portage, Wisconsin, has plans to go back to school. Dittman is in the middle of pursuing an industrial engineering degree at UW-Platteville and is looking forward to resuming his studies for the spring semester.
He said the deployment presented its challenges, but the camaraderie that existed within the unit helped get everyone through it.
"You knew everyone had your back and you had theirs," he said. "I met a lot of great people, and I'm glad I got to be a part of this experience."
The 829th's return marked the completion of their third deployment since Sept. 11, 2001. The unit previously deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2009. The unit is expected to return to Wisconsin in early December.