A soldier’s welcome
Families greet men and women from local National Guard as they return from Afghanistan
Michael Bennett’s family came out in force Tuesday at Chico’s National Guard Armory. Grandma Dee Quigley was there with her partner. Aunts Diane Warren and Dorie Quigley smiled brightly as they spoke about him. And sister Sarah Clinger could hardly contain her excitement as the crowd patiently awaited the arrival of two busloads of soldiers, fresh from a year in Afghanistan. Other family members—a girlfriend, a brother-in-law, a niece and nephews—held signs. Nephew Austin’s read: “Uncle Mike is my hero.”
“He is my hero,” Austin said proudly. “He’s been fighting in Afghanistan—and he saved me from drowning once.”
Bennett was one of about 60 soldiers from the 649th Engineer Company of the California National Guard to return home Tuesday (Dec. 13). So his family was flanked by husbands and wives, parents and children of the others that filled those two buses. The afternoon—unseasonably warm and sunny for mid-December—was filled with a cheerfulness, a giddy optimism for a holiday season to be spent with loved ones.
“The family is here to greet him,” Grandma Quigley said, smiling. She made the drive from Red Bluff, where Bennett and much of his family is from (others came from Corning and as far as Modesto to welcome him home). “He’ll be staying with me for a while, until he gets himself situated.”
For the past year, Bennett and his company—many of whom returned home a few days earlier, on Friday (Dec. 9)—were stationed in the eastern Paktika province of Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan. As engineers, they deconstructed roads to find buried explosives and then rebuilt them; improved travel conditions on main routes; and built checkpoints and protective structures that improved security for villagers, according to a National Guard press release.
An article in the National Guard magazine Grizzly from June details one of the 649th’s missions further, outlining how the soldiers worked with engineers from the Afghan National Army (ANA) to improve eight miles of a well-traveled route that had been damaged by roadside bombs.
“Another benefit of the project was that local residents were able to see the ANA taking the lead, with U.S. soldiers in a supporting role,” the article reads. It continues, quoting 1st Lt. Brian Ross of the 649th: “I believe that, moving forward, the ANA engineers will be a productive engineering unit that can be assigned independent missions.”
Given successes like this, it was not surprising to see the men and women grinning widely as they came off the buses that brought them to the armory from the Chico Municipal Airport.
“I’m pretty prideful,” Bennett said after hugs and kisses from everyone who came to greet him. “I grew up a lot in the last year—it’s all for the good, though.
“This final bus ride was surreal,” the 27-year-old said. “Being home is like a dream.”
Smiling ear to ear, he joked that the first thing he wanted to do was put on some “real shoes and civilian clothes” and spend time with his family.
“We’re just so happy they’re coming home safely.”
That was the sentiment repeated over and over Tuesday, which also happened to be the 375th birthday of the National Guard. One of those expressing that relief was Laura Chavez, whose brother, Pedro Tejeda, was on one of those buses.
“It means a lot to have him back,” Chavez said. “We’re a small family, but we’re happy. For his son, he missed out on a whole year of his life.”
Chavez knew all too well what her brother was going through in Afghanistan. Coming from a “big military family,” Chavez and her husband both are active military in Sacramento, and both served in the Middle East. Chavez herself spent 18 months in Baghdad while her daughter was a toddler.
“My mom was worried,” she said of Tejeda’s time overseas. Tejeda, whose family lives in Sacramento, is a member of the 645th Engineer Company—but he volunteered to be deployed with the 649th. “I just kept telling her, ‘It’s going to be OK.’”
Communication this past year was so much easier than when Chavez was deployed six years ago, she said. Between Facebook and Skype, the family was able to get updates every couple days and know that he was OK.
Bennett’s family also pointed immediately to Facebook as the easiest way to keep in touch.
“We had a lot of contact through Facebook, and as long as we heard from him, we were fine,” said aunt Dorie Quigley. “But sometimes we wouldn’t hear anything. You know the saying ‘No news is good news’—that’s not true in this case. If we didn’t hear from him, we’d be up all night worrying, wondering if he was OK.”
Bennett spent two weeks at home in April, Quigley explained, and at that time he expressed a desire to continue in engineering, possibly even getting hired by a private contractor in the Middle East, where he can complete his National Guard service concurrently.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if several of these boys decide to go back [to Afghanistan],” Dee Quigley said. For now, she’s content to have her grandson home and safe.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him every day,” said Tejeda’s wife, Yanice. “Our king-sized bed has felt really empty since he’s been gone.”