Ill. soldiers return from Afghanistan

June 1, 2009 8:42:34 PM PDT
More than 200 National Guard soldiers from the Chicago area returned home on Monday from their tour of duty in Afghanistan. The soldiers had been in Afghanistan since August where they trained members of the Afghan national police.

The returning guardsmen are based out of sycamore, Robbins, Chicago and Effingham.

ABC7 had the honor of being at the welcoming party for the second battalion 122nd in Robbins. It was a very happy occasion but also bittersweet. The unit returns with fewer soldiers than they had when they left.

It's impossible to describe the overwhelming joy of families being reunited at the Crestwood Armory in Robbins on Monday. The embraces between husbands and wives; the wonder in soldiers' eyes as they held young children that had barely been born when they left for Afghanistan last summer; the extraordinary relief felt by mothers holding their breath for far too long.

"I'm so overwhelmed. I'm just so glad he's back," said Valerie Smith, Guardsman's mother.

"I got back from leave in March. But nothing like being back permanently," said Robert Smith, returning Guardsman.

It was shortly after ten on Monday morning when these ninety Illinois Guardsmen rolled up to the armory in their buses, the Patriot Guard leading the way. The hall where their families waited erupted in cheers as they walked in.

And though there were tears of joy, there was also sadness for two members of their unit who did not make it back.

Just a month after their departure, Staff Sgt. Jason Vazquez of Chicago and Sgt. Joshua Harris of Romeoville were killed by a roadside bomb. Both their families were there on Monday, brought together in a shared grief.

"We're always in contact; emails, phone calls. We're family. I've adopted a new family in my life with Josh's parents," said Lisa Perez, Jason Vazquez's mother.

"I wanted to be here. I think my son would have wanted his family here to greet his brothers, welcome them home," said Millie Harris-Hickey, Joshua Harris' mother.

Mixed in with all the day's feelings, was also pride in their work. As mentors to the Afghan police the soldiers worked with their assigned police district on all levels of police training, logistics and administration.

"It's a learning process and a teaching process. You learn things about their country which makes us to be able to stay over there longer and so they can have a democracy like we do," said Pfc. Ronald Rochelle, Illinois National Guard.

Overall, these guardsmen were awarded 14 purple hearts, nine awards for valor, 33 bronze stars and 19 meritorious service medals. They are just a part of the Illinois Army National Guard's 33rd infantry brigade combat team deployed to Afghanistan. The remaining units will return later this summer.


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