The tension in the air was palpable as loved ones huddled inside an airplane hangar at Missoula’s Minuteman Jet Center waiting to catch the first glimpse of their soldiers returning back from a yearlong deployment with the Montana National Guard.
Families and friends wrestled with excitement mixed with jitters as their arrival time approached. Some held children on their shoulders and mingled with others; one woman kept a small dog in her jacket to keep warm in the frigid weather.
“It’s been hard, we had our baby while he was gone,” said Abigail Hayward from Kalispell, who was awaiting the arrival of her husband Tyler Hayward from his first deployment. “I’m nervous for the transition back into normal life.”
People slowly moved closer to the opening of the hangar and craned their necks any time a plane flew overhead in the gray skies. When the plane was finally in-bound for the runway everyone flooded out to the tarmac waving and the sun broke through the clouds, illuminating Blue Mountain.
Some brought signs that read “365 days I held you in my heart, today I hold you in my arms,” “missed me, missed me, now you gotta kiss me,” “our son, our hero,” and “welcome home daddy.”
“I’m just very proud of all that they’ve accomplished,” said Col. Renea Dorvall, assistant adjutant general with the Montana Army National Guard. “From the family perspective, we’ve taken their soldier away for a year and so to see all the smiling faces, the anticipation of welcoming home, whether it’s their son, their daughter, their mom, their dad, it’s just outstanding.”
As the first soldiers emerged from the plane, they were welcomed by booming applause and cheers while they wound down the jet bridge. When they exited the plane they were first met by Dorvall and Gov. Greg Gianforte.
Much of the anxiety from earlier in the morning melted away and dry eyes were few and far between as children reunited with their parents and loved ones held each other in long embraces.
“We made it back OK and that’s all that matters now,” said one soldier to her family as they walked into the hangar.
About 330 soldiers came home to Montana on Thursday, the day before Veterans Day, after a yearlong deployment to various parts of Southwest Asia, said Major Ryan Finnegan, public affairs officer with the Montana National Guard. A majority of those deployed returned on charter flights that arrived in Missoula and the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport. The remaining soldiers will fly home on commercial flights to the airport closest to their home throughout the week.
The Montana National Guard soldiers with the 163rd Combined Arms Battalion and the 631st Chemical Company began their deployment in support of Operation Spartan Shield in early November last year with training at Fort Bliss, Texas. They returned to the States in October to complete the demobilization process in Texas.
“It’s really a day to celebrate the soldiers and their families that served in the Montana Army National Guard,” Dorvall said. “We’re thankful for their service, their dedication and all that they did while we were deployed.”
The soldiers quickly claimed their bags as they were wheeled into the hangar, eager to go home after a long year away.
“There’s a lot of emotion honestly, but more or less, it’s tiring,” said Nick McMarrell, who just arrived home from his second deployment.
McMarrell explained that there were a lot of “bumps” along the way, including not being certain what date he would finally make it home.
“So the emotions go from very happy to like you kind of want to break down,” he said. “A lot of us just really want to grab our bags and just go.”
McMarrell was welcomed home by his fiancee Ashley Slack, who bought a house while he was deployed.
“You don’t realize how much you need him here,” Slack said. “It’s been a lot of change in the last year, and you really get to feel how long a year really is.”
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