- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 5, 2016

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - Among the more than 160 soldiers welcomed back to South Dakota Saturday was a large chunk of one family.

Wade Wright, of Ravinia, Cory Vogt, of Madison, Tyler Vogt, of Yankton, Trent Vogt, of Crooks, Tyson Vogt, of Bonesteel, and Jessie Vogt, Sioux City, Iowa, a group of cousins, were all members of the 155th Engineer Company, which returned to South Dakota on Saturday afternoon. Trent, Tyler and Tyson are brothers.

The Wagner- and Rapid City-based unit was deployed for 10 months to Kuwait, completing construction and remodeling projects at bases across the Middle East, and was welcomed home Saturday afternoon by various state leaders such as Gov. Dennis Daugaard, U.S. Rep Kristi Noem and Sen. John Thune during a ceremony at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City.

The men, ranging in age from the youngest, 19-year-old Tyson, to the oldest, Tyler, 34, spent time together while overseas, leaning on each other for support on the most difficult days and celebrating together on the best.

“Even though there were a bunch of us in the unit not related by blood, we’re all one big family,” Wade said. “At the same time, it is nice to have your relatives there with you - it makes everything a little more special.”

In talking to other active duty military members, Wade said each was surprised to hear such a large section of a family deployed at once. He said there were several brother duos or smaller groups of cousins in the group, but it was obvious for the Wrights and Vogts that their situation was special.

Wade’s wife, Molly, said several of the men enlisted for service following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The event triggered a passion for protection and service for many of the cousins, though they don’t have a direct link to anyone killed, injured or involved in the attacks, Molly said.

“Something like that, it can’t not change you, it just changes everyone a little differently,” Molly said. “You remember exactly where you were and what you were doing, what you were feeling. A lot of these guys took that and made the commitment to serve our country.”

‘Felt less helpless’

Wade’s mom, Julie, said Wade has two additional cousins on the other side of the family who were also deployed with the 155th, creating an even wider canopy of family comfort.

As much as having relatives nearby helped the cousins, Julie said it was just as important for her knowing her son wasn’t alone while overseas. Having familiar faces around and people to talk to who have shared similar experiences on U.S. soil made a difference for Wade, she said.

“They were all members of the same guard unit, so we knew in the back of our mind if one had to go, they’re all going to go,” Julie said. “It was still a shock for everyone at first, but the transition for Wade and the boys was a little bit easier than I think it would have been. It was truly a blessing in disguise.”

Julie said knowing the community never forgot the soldiers’ absence was also important, not only for the families left behind, but the soldiers, as well. She highlighted Corsica native Carson Kostal’s senior project to create wooden yellow ribbons, several feet tall, in support of the 155th. More than 170 ribbons were distributed across the state, one of which sits in Molly and Wade’s front yard.

For Sue Vogt, having all three of her sons - Tyson, Trent and Tyler - deployed was difficult, but not unbearable.

Trent and Tyler were members of the 155th’s first mobilization in 2002-2003, when the unit was deployed to Kuwait in support of Operation Noble Eagle. Tyson was 9 years old at that time.

“You know how it goes, the little brother always has to do what the big brothers do,” Sue said.

And because Trent and Tyler moved away from home several years ago and each have wives and children of their own, Sue said Tyson’s absence left the biggest hole in her day-to-day routine, as he had just graduated high school in May 2015 before being deployed in August.

With advancements made in technology over the past 10 years, communication came easier this time, as opposed to the older brothers’ first deployment, Sue said, adding that fact alone eased tensions for her as a concerned mother.

“They all spent some time apart because Trent spent time in Jordan and Tyson spent time in Iraq while Tyler stayed in Kuwait, but, you know, they at least knew somebody was close,” Sue said. “And their families or I was just a phone call or text message away. For me, it’s hard to explain, but I felt less helpless this time around.”

The families left behind

But the emotional and mental toll still weighed heavy on the wives and young children of the soldiers, who were each left to find their respective new normals.

Each relied on Skype or FaceTime, saying it helped the kids create a connection between their fathers’ voices and faces.

But Wade and his 2-year-old daughter, Alyla, had a unique way of “communicating.”

Alyla had a Build-A-Bear dressed up as a soldier with a recording inside, so when she pushed down on the bear’s hand, a message from Wade would play: “Hi, Alyla, Daddy misses you. Love you. See you soon.”

Alyla would always respond with a variation of sentiments like “Hi, Daddy,” ”See you soon,” and “Miss you, too.”

She also had another stuffed bear that Wade could send voice recordings to by means of a mobile app while he was away, updating it as often as he wanted to. When a new message was recorded, a heart emblem on the bear would light up, and Alyla, again, could push a button to hear it.

Wade said he could speak for his cousins in saying technology like that - the kind that made their kids, wives and other family members feel connected - was what brought them the most comfort while away from home.

But it was sweeter to see their loved ones in person Saturday.

“Alyla kind of looked at me and had to do a double take a little bit. Then she realized, yeah, I remember you,” Wade said. “I wasn’t in the phone anymore, I was there, I was with her mom. I think I’ve been looking forward to that moment since the day I left. It was a great experience being away, and I loved being with my family, but I have family at home, too, and I missed them more than you’d believe.”

___

Information from: The Daily Republic, https://www.mitchellrepublic.com

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