Jubilant families welcomed home 60 members of a New Hampshire National Guard air-ambulance unit yesterday after a yearlong deployment to Iraq that many returning servicemen called relatively quiet as the seven-year war winds down.
The men and women of C Company, 3rd of the 238th Aviation Regiment arrived at the Guard's aviation support facility in Concord yesterday to cheers, applause and embraces from hundreds of relatives, friends, uniformed colleagues and others. The Medevac unit deployed to Iraq last year.
"I thought the day would never come," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Zachary Lane, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot and 1994 graduate of Kearsarge Regional High School finishing his second tour in Iraq. "It was a long last two or three months, but it's good to be home. It feels incredible."
Gov. John Lynch welcomed the soldiers home and offered them help as they readjust to life back home - even jokingly offering to baby- sit their children if they needed a hand.
"Thank you for your service, your bravery and your courage, and welcome back to
our great state of New Hampshire," said Lynch, who ordered that flags be flown at half-staff today in honor of Army Sgt. Andrew Nicol, who was killed Sunday in Afghanistan.
The 238th was based in southern Iraq and ran medical transport and other missions for U.S. and allied personnel as well as Iraqi civilians. The unit returned home without suffering any casualties.
"It was much quieter this time around than it was last time," said 1st Sgt. James Aldridge of Franklin, who served earlier tours in Iraq and Bosnia.
U.S. units have been withdrawing from Iraq as combat operations there wrap up, and Aldridge and others said the operational tempo was slower this tour than in the past.
The U.S. undertaking in Iraq is even getting a new name as it switches to a more advisory role: Starting Sept. 1, Operation Iraqi Freedom willand Operation New Dawn will begin.
"From our perspective, the shooting war was over," Aldridge said.
His wife, Lisa, who is the military's transition assistance adviser for New Hampshire, and their 14-year-old twin daughters, Nadine and Katarina, were waiting on the tarmac when he and the other guardsmen arrived by bus.
"It's just good to have him home and get back to life," she said.
1st Lt. Matthew Rouleau, 26, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot returning from his first tour, said he bought a house in Concord just before he was deployed. "I finally have a chance to spend some time in it. . . . I just want to relax and enjoy the last bit of summer here," he said.
Denise Lugg, 55, of Barrington brought flowers to greet her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Vincent Lugg. She said the fighting has slowed in recent years, allowing Medevac units like the 238th to do more humanitarian missions.
"I think, for them, that's the fulfilling part, to know that they're helping people, whether it's the soldiers or the Iraqi people themselves," she said.
Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Bosinske, a medic from Brunswick, Maine, returned from his second tour in Iraq to his wife, Amy, and their children, 3-year-old Lily and 15-month-old Liam.
A sign on the family's stroller proclaimed, "Welcome Home Daddy."
"We're just glad to have him," Amy Bosinske said.
The sentiment was echoed by Maj. Gen. William Reddel, adjutant general of the New Hampshire National Guard, who joined Lynch in welcoming the unit back.
"It's outstanding that they're finally home," he said.