ORONO, Maine — Staff Sgt. Toby Pond carried his 2-year-old son, Asher, when he went onstage Friday to get his walking stick during the Freedom Salute — the official welcome home — for soldiers from the Maine 1136th Transportation Company who recently returned from Kabul, Afghanistan.
“He just said he wanted to go up, and I said, ‘All right, let’s go, dude,’” the proud father of two said after the ceremony, which was held at the University of Maine’s Collins Center for the Arts.
The 173 Maine Army National Guard citizen soldiers provided force protection at Camp Eggers and New Kabul Compound — two of the most important headquarters in Afghanistan — and did so without a single security incident in their 10-month deployment. They left Maine in May 2010 and returned home in March.
Pond, who deployed with the 1136th in 2003 when the unit went to Kuwait and Iraq, said there is nothing like having a wife and family at home for support.
“Just having a family changes everything,” the 30-year-old Farmington resident said.
He married his wife, Holly, in 2006 and now has two children, Asher, and Carson, 6 months.
“It was challenging,” Holly Pond said. “It was difficult, but we got through it. It’s over and we’re ready to get going on.”
The Ponds were not alone. Elizabeth and Joshua Tilton of Bangor also said they are glad the experience is behind them.
“It’s great” to be home, Josh Tilton said.
The couple used Skype video telecommunication and the Internet to keep in touch and to find and purchase a new home in January and have spent the time since the unit returned in March to unpack and fix up their new home.
“It was nice to finally start our normal life in our new house,” Beth Tilton said.
Josh Tilton said on Friday that taking off the soldier uniform, which he wore for at least 12 hours a day every day of the 10 months he was in Afghanistan, didn’t stop his programming to be constantly aware of his surroundings.
“I’ve been good with things like that,” he said. “A couple of times I had a nervous tick — where is my rifle. Going over as a soldier, you are in harm’s way.”
The freedom salute included speeches by dignitaries including Gov. Paul LePage, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, and Maj. Gen. John W. Libby, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard.
“It’s always difficult to see our loved ones leave and go fight for this country,” the governor said. “But it’s remarkable and gratifying to see you all come home.”
Later in the program it was announced that Ann LePage had decided to take supporting the military as her mission as the state’s first lady.
Snowe thanked the soldiers and then thanked the family and friends who supported them from Maine.
“You’re nothing short of incredible,” she said. “And we thank each and every one of you.”
Collins said, “You performed magnificently, and that’s not just my opinion, it’s the opinion of Gen. David Petraeus.”
New Kabul Compound is the headquarters for Petraeus, who is head of the coalition forces in Afghanistan. Collins read a letter from him to the Maine unit commending them for a job well done. In addition to helping to protect and secure the two bases, which lie within Kabul’s “Green Zone,” the 1136th also protected fuel transports, escorted visiting VIPs and delivered school supplies to local children, Collins said.
“The people of Maine have much of which to be proud of,” she said.
Libby talked about camaraderie among soldiers who have served in harm’s way and told the soldiers that there are many resources available for any who have lingering problems.
World War II veteran Galen Cole, a veterans advocate and founder of the Cole Land Transportation Museum in Bangor, gave the soldiers walking sticks during the ceremony. He started giving out the walking sticks years ago as a way to connect soldiers.
Capt. Peter Carter, commander of the 1136th since October 2008, was the last to speak, and he repeated several times that he was extremely proud of the work done by the men and women under his command. He went on to thank the people who supported them.
“You guys suffered the most with us being gone,” Carter said. “Your support is absolutely amazing.”
Beth Tilton said all Army wives understand the sacrifice of being married to a soldier.
“We all know,” she said. “We just keep surviving till it’s over. We all know there is an incredible welcome home at the other side.”