- Associated Press - Friday, January 7, 2011

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (AP) — About 275 soldiers returned from Afghanistan to cheering and crying family Friday after their division suffered one of its deadliest years in decades.

Hundreds marked the soldiers’ return during a joyous celebration in a plane hangar at Fort Campbell filled with homemade signs, balloons and music. The homecoming was especially poignant because the 101st Airborne Division lost 105 soldiers in 2010, accounting for about 1 in 5 American deaths in Afghanistan. The losses equal the death toll of its 2005-2006 Iraq deployment, tying for most divisional deaths in a year since Vietnam.

Maj. Gen. Frank Wiercinski, senior commander at Fort Campbell during the deployment, said Friday’s arrival of troops from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team marks the beginning of the return of about 17,000 of the division’s soldiers from Afghanistan.

Wiercinski said the soldiers will go through seven days of training and screening to help them deal with emotional, spiritual or physical issues.

“We are giving them an opportunity to decompress and take some time off,” he said.

The Army division was part of President Barack Obama’s troop surge to push back Afghan insurgents, and it was involved in heavy fighting in the southern and eastern parts of the country. The division known as the Screaming Eagles was formed ahead of the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy.

Many families suffered through an agonizing year of monitoring reports of heavy casualties.

“I got up every morning and I checked my iPhone for news about Afghanistan,” said Peggy Gallaher. Her son, Sgt. Carson Gallaher, was among the first to return.

Mary White waited for her son, Sgt. Stuart White, with a large sign saying, “We’ve missed you!” She sat with her daughter, Jessica Burk, who has also served in the military.

White said her son described his time in Afghanistan as drawn-out and tedious at times. To her, the past year in Afghanistan was much worse than his previous stints abroad.

“It’s difficult when there are reports of areas that are under fire,” she said. “You want to know where he’s at.”

When Sgt. Arthur Drake II, 27, got off the plane and saw his parents, he struggled to keep his composure while standing at attention during a brief ceremony before the families and soldiers were reunited.

That’s because his parents and brother were all wearing fake black handlebar mustaches, a reference to the fake mustache he wore when he came home during his mid-tour leave a few months back.

“I saw them and I tried not to smile, tried to act professionally,” he said. “I left my mustache in my bag.”

All kidding aside, he said this deployment was tougher on him physically because of the mountainous terrain in some parts of eastern Afghanistan. As a scout, he enjoyed the increased combat action.

“It was a little more fun,” he said.

His mother, Janice Drake, said her son had come very close to explosions during a previous deployment, but this time he told her that he was involved in firefights. His father, Arthur Drake, said he realized combat was more intense this time around.

“When he was on leave, he explained about being pinned down,” he said.

After the plane made its landing at Fort Campbell, wives and children pressed up against a metal fence, screaming in delight and snapping pictures as the soldiers filed by with their bags and weapons.

Eight family members of Spc. Jason Whitaker, 28, showed up to welcome him home, including his two little boys. His wife, Brandi Whitaker, 23, said the soldier hasn’t seen the youngest since he began walking.

“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs because some of his guys and close friends were injured,” Whitaker said while holding one of her sons as they waited in the cold January air for the plane.

She made him a bracelet with the name of one of his friends who was killed in Afghanistan.

Sheila Patton was also at the ceremony to welcome home the soldiers that serve under her husband, Command Sgt. Maj. Gregory Patton, the top enlisted soldier for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team.

To her, the soldiers arriving home on Friday were her “babies.” Her husband also felt the same responsibility, she said, to care for these soldiers even after they all came home.

“He takes pride in his job and takes pride in his boys,” she said.

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