Brandy Bisson of Concord has two sets of grandparents who served in the military, and her great-grandfather, Charles Willey, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service during World War II.
But nothing prepared her for the emotions that welled up as she waited for her son, Pvt. Ryan Bisson, 24, of the New Hampshire Army National Guard, to walk through the Manchester Armory door after nine months overseas.
“You’re going to make me cry,” said Bisson, standing with her husband, Tom, their two younger sons, Tommy and Tanner, Ryan’s wife Laura, and Ryan and Laura’s son Rowan — who last saw his dad when he was 9 months old.
“He’s my first born. I’m so proud of him. I’ve been scared, too. Even it it’s considered a safe zone, you never know,” said Bisson, glancing down at Rowan, now nearly 19 months old. “He’s just been able to see Rowan on FaceTime. When he left, Rowan wasn’t walking or talking.”
It was a tears-of-joy moment, filled with pride and relief, for several hundred friends and family members of the 105 New Hampshire National Guard soldiers who returned Wednesday from a nine-month deployment in the Middle East. About 15 others had already arrived or will be arriving the next several days.
For the Bruneau family of Rochester, the pending return was a combination family reunion and rite of passage. Matthew Bruneau, a teacher in Bedford who has served seven years in the National Guard, and his older brother, Tim, who has served for 13 years and works full time for the Guard, waited for their brother, 1st Lt. Christopher Bruneau, to arrive by bus with the brigade from Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.
“It’s going to be very exciting,” Tim Bruneau said. “We miss him a lot. It’s uncomfortable having him that far away. Both Tim and Matt have served stateside, most recently during the pandemic in New Hampshire. But so far Chris is the first to serve overseas.
“We have a family tradition of wanting to serve,” Tim Bruneau said.
Emotions — combination of happiness and bated breath — filled the cavernous space inside the armory Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s been hard. He and I are very close,” said Scott Adler of Merrimack, waiting for his son, Sgt. Christian Adler, 23, to return from his first deployment. “He wanted steak, potato and asparagus for dinner. I’m sure he’ll crash for a couple of days.”
Headquarters and Headquarters Battery (HHB), 197th Field Artillery Brigade, deployed last spring , served as the field artillery headquarters for U.S. Army Central Command, which includes Jordan, Syria, Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq. Since then, the197th worked with partner nations, conducting joint exercises and cultural exchanges.
The New Hampshire Army Guard maintained and operated radar systems to protect coalition forces and support joint and multinational field artillery missions. It was the brigade’s fourth deployment to the Middle East since 2004. A formal welcome home ceremony is scheduled for spring.
“The New Hampshire National Guard has always had a state and federal mission. We answer to both the governor and president in a time of need,” said Lt. Col. Gregory Heilshorn, public affairs director for NHNG, which currently numbers roughly 1,600 Army National Guard soldiers, and about 1,000 National Guard airmen. Guard units are typically deployed every five years, and most hold civilian jobs between deployments.
At present, about 180 New Hampshire Guardsmen are working in support of missions in North America and overseas. “Since 9/11, we’ve gone from a reserve force to being on the front lines,” Heilshorn said. The Army National Guard goes through the same training as regular-army soldiers.
Carrie Carter of Franklin had missed her son, Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Carter, who served in a signal company in Jordan after departing 10 months ago. Carter is Active Guard Reserve, or AGR, which means he works full time for the Guard, based in Concord. “FaceTime’s a blessing,” she said. “I cant wait to see him walk through that door.”
The Mailhot family arrived early for Staff Sgt. Andre Mailhot’s appearance — after the brigade had attempted four times to leave the airport in Kuwait, thwarted by insufficient crew and other last minute snafus. This was Mailhot’s third deployment.
“With their increased skills, you have more confidence,” Manchester resident Valerie Mailhot said of her son, now 33, who joined the Guard at age 19. “It gets easier but the worry’s still there. We pray for their safety, all of them.”
“It was definitely hard,” said Mailhot’s wife Nicky, who met her husband while she too, was serving in the Guard. “I knew it was coming but it was difficult.”
Mailhot’s 4-year-old niece, Savannah, dressed in blue camouflage tights and a patriotic ballerina dress, held a homemade sign. Her younger brother held one, too. “I can’t wait,” said Savannah, before twirling.
“As long as he’s safe and enjoying what he wants to do, we’re all for it,” said Steve Castellano of Hills borough, waiting for his son, Tyler Loukides, 24, a guardsman from Manchester. “His mother was in touch with him every single week.”
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