CAMP DOUGLAS — On a mostly cloudy, muggy August Saturday in Prairie du Chien, 147 soldiers of the Wisconsin National Guard’s 229th Engineering Company got a sendoff for their deployment in Afghanistan.
On a sunny July Thursday at Volk Field, all 147 soldiers of the 229th Engineering Company were welcomed back.
The soldiers left their Sun Country Airlines jet shortly after 1 p.m. Their walk from the jet to the hangar where the welcome-home ceremony took place dissolved into emotional reunions and greetings of spouses, children, parents, siblings and friends after an absence of 10½ months.
One of those reunions was between Phillip Budden of Platteville and his parents, Paul and Chris, at Volk Field. Phillip Budden of Platteville said returning was “better than what we’ve had.”
Paul Budden served 23 years in the National Guard, and noted at the Veterans Honor Roll Independence Day that being a parent of a soldier is harder than being a soldier.
“I experienced it,” said Paul Budden. “I had gone there and knew what they were facing. It’s a hostile country and I knew what they were getting into.”
While the Buddens saw each other again, Dan Loeffelholz of Platteville met his son, Jackson, for the first time.
Loeffelholz returned from his third overseas tour. Unlike the previous two tours to Iraq, he had command responsibility this time.
“Some of the projects were similar that we did; others were not — we got into deconstruction,” he said. “This tour as a platoon sergeant of the troops, I was responsible for their safety.”
Peter Hrubes of Livingston said returning “feels good. I missed everybody, and I’m glad to see them.
“It went by fast, that’s for sure. It’s something I’m glad I experienced. I won’t regret it, that’s for sure.”
Hrubes’ opinion was echoed by Eric Klar of Evansville, who grew up in Platteville.
“It actually went a lot quicker than I thought,” he said. “We were busy that the days just kind of flew by.”
While some soldiers hadn’t processed being in Wisconsin yet — “I don’t think it’s set in yet,” said Klar — others had.
“It’s good knowing when I go outside this base, I don’t have to worry about getting killed, and I can eat something without getting sick,” said Nathan Allen of Lancaster. “It was definitely a life experience that I’m glad not many soldiers will have to deal with with the closedown. I’m glad it’s done.”
Allen said he was most surprised by the limited amount of travel the 229th was assigned.
“I thought it was going to be a lot more mobile, going out all the time, and it really wasn’t,” he said.
Once the soldiers and their welcoming parties were herded into the hangar, they heard from, among others, their commanding officer, Maj. Jesse Augustine, along with Gov. Scott Walker and other National Guard senior officers.
“Soldiers of the 229th: You’re home,” said Augustine.
Augustine’s words were paralleled by Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, the state’s deputy adjutant general: “229th Engineers, I only have a couple of words for you — mission accomplished. We are unbelievably proud of what you have accomplished in theater. Welcome back to Wisconsin — job well done.”
Augustine, who was promoted from captain to major during the deployment, noted the “266 days in theater, over 580 missions, 16,000 miles traveled, 41 improvised explosive devices found and cleared, countless construction projects, the highest maintenance readiness rate in theater. Your soldiers — these soldiers — were hands down the best engineers in theater and the best company in theater.”
To his soldiers, Augustine said, pausing several times to compose himself, “What you accomplished in nine months is absolutely remarkable. I could go on for hours talking about the highlights and accolades of your missions, but I’m not going to. I’ll let you do that. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but tell your stories.
“Tell your moms and dads and your spouses how you blew through the birthplace of the Taliban, how you recovered downed aircraft, how you built forward operating bases in the face of the enemy, how you recovered missing soldiers so they could go home to their families. How you trained and mentored the Afghan army to stand on their own feet and fight their own battle. Those are your stories, and you should tell them.”
“You had a difficult mission in a difficult part of the world,” said Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, the state’s adjutant general. “Not only is our country grateful, but so is Afghanistan. You’ll never know how many men and women in Afghanistan will be forever grateful for your contribution to their country. You did a remarkable job.”
“In a soldier’s career there is no better day than landing back in the state of Wisconsin and being reunited with their families,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Shields, the National Guard’s senior enlisted advisor.
Walker thanked the 229th “for your service, and thank you for protecting freedom here and around the world. We’re proud of you. We also say thank you to the families who made sure things were good back here at home so your loved ones who deployed could do the job they were sent to do.”
Platteville’s welcome-home for the 229th will be held during the Hometown Festival Week’s Party in the Park in City Park Thursday, July 25.
Vaughn R. Larson of Wisconsin National Guard Public Affairs contributed to this story.