SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. — What a holiday celebration: Another group of New England soldiers returned home Thursday from a one-year hitch in Afghanistan, marching off an airfield and into the arms of ecstatic loved ones.
In a scene that also played out at welcome-home ceremonies in New Hampshire and Maine, about 80 Vermont National Guard members flew in from Camp Atterbury, Ind., arriving to about 300 family members and friends in an aviation hangar where an Army band played “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
“We did a really good job over there,” said Spc. Matthew Bouchard, 30, of Elmore. “Everybody did what we went to do. I think we left it a better place than when we got there.”
The Vermont soldiers were part of a 1,500-member Vermont National Guard contingent called on to train Afghan national security forces, fight insurgents and provide logistical support. It was the biggest one-time deployment of the Vermont Guard since World War II.
All are expected to be home by year’s end, according to Guard officials.
The welcoming party Thursday was a happier version of the deployment ceremonies held in the same hangar a year ago, as the troops left for war.
Mothers and young children formed a human gantlet around the door leading to the airstrip outside, one woman holding a hand-lettered sign that read “Welcome Back, soldiers. We missed you.” When the door finally opened, the camouflage-clad soldiers marched in single file — until they caught sight of their loved ones.
Bouchard’s three children — Jared, 10, Emily, 8, and Avery, 6 — rushed to him when he stepped into the hangar, hugging his legs as they looked up at his smiling face. His fiancee, Jenn Bradley, 30, joined in.
“I feel like I haven’t breathed for a year,” said his mother, Ellen Bouchard, 57, of Wolcott. “There wasn’t a single minute of the day that I didn’t worry. It was a nightmare. It was every minute of every day. And when you woke up in the middle of the night, that was their day. So you were more worried when you woke up at night.”
There was plenty to worry about, even though Bouchard didn’t always tell them so.
Two months ago, he was injured when an improvised explosive device blew up under the vehicle he was riding in. He suffered a concussion that has left him with headaches and blurred vision in one eye.
“He just told us yesterday,” said Ellen Bouchard.
Bouchard, who looked no worse for the wear, downplayed his injuries when asked, eager to savor the sight of his children.
“It’s been a long time since I got to spend time with my family, without something looming in the near future,” he said.
The welcoming party for Spc. Travis Cook of Bellows Falls consisted of wife Jen Cook, 23, daughter Morgan Cook, 5, and son Travis Cook II, 1, as well as Cook’s brother and mother.
Cook said their 5-year-old daughter often dreamed about her father while he was in Afghanistan, “waking up and saying for the bus to bring her daddy back.”
“I’m just glad to be home,” said Cook, 24, a wheeled vehicle mechanic. “It was difficult. I’m glad it’s over.”
For now, they’ll celebrate the little things. “Whatever he wants to do — veg out, be with his family, cook his favorite meal,” said his mother, Ginger Cook, 50, of Westminster.
The same plane that delivered them made stops in Manchester, N.H., and Bangor, Maine, dropping off other homebound troops serving in the 86th Infantry Combat Brigade:
• In Manchester, 46 New Hampshire National Guard soldiers were welcomed by a crowd of about 300 at the Manchester State Armory.
• In Bangor, 62 Guard members were welcomed home in a ceremony at the Armed Forces Reserve Center, where about 150 people were on hand to greet them.
“The anticipation in the armory was amazing,” said Staff Sgt. Rhonda Philbrick, a Maine National Guard spokeswoman, who was there. “Some of the soldiers left with their wives being pregnant, and they finally came home to see their babies. We had one specialist start crying as soon as he held his baby.
“It really gets to you when you realize how long they’ve been away,” she said.