Another chapter came to a close Saturday (Feb. 21) in the Wisconsin National Guard's saga in the global war on terror.
Saturday morning, five of the six remaining Soldiers from the 32nd Base Defense Operations Center (BDOC) returned to Madison, Wisconsin following nearly a year in Kuwait - one is still at Fort Bliss completing administrative requirements. Later that afternoon, more than 30 members from Battery A, 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery, arrived in Milwaukee, marking the end of their combat deployment in Afghanistan.
"I don't care if this is your first time coming home or your fifth, this is the best day ever," Command Sgt. Maj. Curtis Patrouille, senior enlisted advisor for the 1st Battalion, 105th Cavalry Regiment, told the returning BDOC Soldiers. "So enjoy it — you've earned it."
"It makes me feel happy and proud that they're back," said Sgt. Maj. Jason Grundel, who deployed as Battery A's first sergeant and returned with half of the unit in December as part of a troop drawdown as Operation Enduring Freedom transitioned to Operation Freedom's Sentinel.
Col. David Monk, who led both the 32nd BDOC as well as the 32nd Military Engagement Team and returned with part of both units Jan. 24, was pleased to see the last BDOC Soldiers return.
"I can't say too much how thankful I am for all the effort you put in," Monk told the returning Soldiers at the Dane County Regional Airport. "Being able to run into other leaders and hearing their stories about how well you guys performed — that's not [typical.]"
Sgt. Kyle Johns was responsible for ensuring people who arrived at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait had housing during their stay. This was his first deployment.
"It definitely opened my eyes to a different culture and the day-to-day customs versus how we do things in the United States," Johns said. "I thought it was a good growing experience."
Capt. Aaron Ammerman, Battery A commander, was glad to be back in Wisconsin — though not as pleased with the snow and cold.
"But we'll take it," Ammerman said.
Capt. Aaron Greisen, a battle captain with the 32nd BDOC, was also not very excited about the cold.
"It was like 80 when we left [Kuwait,]" Greisen said. "I'm super excited to be back with family."
Battery A was only the third National Guard HIMARS unit to conduct a field artillery mission in Afghanistan. Ammerman said that in itself was the best part of the nine-month deployment.
"More often than not, artillery units, especially in the Guard, that get deployed do not get to do artillery missions," Ammerman said. "We got to do what we trained to do, take our HIMARS [launchers] over there and put rounds downrange.
"These guys just knocked it out of the park," Ammerman continued. "They were available 24 hours a day, seven days a week — cold, hot, rain, just like the post office. Day in and day out, they provided outstanding support to Soldiers out there conducting combat operations."
Staff Sgt. Joshua Walsh, who served as the battery's liaison with higher echelon units, said he thought Battery A set a high standard for the National Guard in the eyes of the active duty troops they supported.
"Our unit displayed a lot of competence and knowledge in our jobs," Walsh said.
Grundel said the unit's competence went beyond artillery — the National Guardsmen's civilian experience and education made an impression on the chain of command in Afghanistan.
"They used us in numerous avenues — not only in field artillery, but other areas of the camp," Grundel said. "We used every resource we had."
Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, deputy adjutant general for Army as well as an artillery officer, followed Battery A's mission with keen interest.
"Each and every day I was jealous when I would get a chance to see the fantastic missions, the fantastic opportunities you had in theater," Anderson said. "I appreciate everything you did — representing not only yourselves in such fashion, but the Wisconsin Army National Guard."
Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin adjutant general, also praised Battery A.
"This is truly the finest National Guard this country's ever had, when the Army can take Citizen Soldiers and get them ready for a mission like this, send them overseas and have them be so successful," Dunbar said. "To each and every Soldier here, I am incredibly proud of what you do. Gov. Walker is out of the state, but he asked me to relay on his behalf and First Lady Tonette Walker how proud they are of all that you've done."
"I've gotta tell you, 32 years in uniform, this is the best part of the job," Dunbar continued. "Families, I know that, as good as I'm feeling to have them home, it doesn't compare to how you feel. I know that you've missed them, but they've done a great job for our country and our state. From the bottom of my heart, great job, welcome home, and be safe."
Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Shields, the Wisconsin Army National Guard's senior enlisted advisor, told the Soldiers that their mission was not over quite yet.
"It's very important as we move on for the next few months that you make that transition back to civilian life and being back with your families again," Shields said. "Take the time, be understanding — people change, things have changed while you were gone, and you've changed as well."
Those changes brought tears to one Soldier's eyes.
Staff Sgt. Kyle Juarez nearly missed the opportunity to see his daughter Nia born more than three months ago via a live video link. Saturday was his first opportunity to hold his baby daughter.
"Amazing," he said quietly. "It's a long time coming. I'm glad [the wait] is over with."
Capt. Joy Staab contributed to this report