Happy homecoming: Soldiers return from Afghanistan
After spending nine months in Afghanistan, more than 100 soldiers from the Clyde-based 211th Military Police Company touched down in the mountains Saturday to tear- filled greetings from friends and family.
While overseas, the unit's mission was to serve as advisors to the Afghan police and conduct convoy security operations to support logistical supply movements.
The 120 soldiers said goodbye to friends and family at a send-off ceremony at Haywood Community College just shy of a year ago. The unit knew about the deployment about a year prior to their departure, but that didn't make the distance any easier.
Sgt. Jeff Hoyle, of Clyde, was among the many sharing hugs with his family for the first time in months. His wife, Holly, and children 14-year-old Aria and 4-year-old Bowen, eagerly waited all day to embrace him.
"You wait all year for that day," Holly Hoyle said. "The day they are leaving, that is your focus and you never really know when that day is going to be [when they come back."
There were some tears when she hugged him for the first time in almost a year, but the emotions were mostly happiness.
"We were just thrilled. We couldn't believe it was happening," she said.
Hoyle said the experience overseas was tough, but it made the soldiers stronger as a unit and as individuals.
"We did a lot of security operations there in Afghanistan. I think all in all it was a good mission to have and something the 211th was very well trained to do," he said.
Though the unit is based in Clyde, most of its soldiers are from other parts of the state, many from the Charlotte area.
"They had to build the unit up to strength using soldiers from other units, so we were kind of a melting pot of people from all over the state," he said. "We came back pretty much a family — a lot stronger than when we left. It was a really good group of soldiers."
The unit was stationed in a mountainous desert area of Afghanistan where soldiers experienced extreme temperatures.
"When we first got there in November, it was probably the coldest I've ever been in my life, which was surprising since it was supposed to be the desert," Hoyle said. "But then March and spring rolled around and it changed in an instant."
The weather suddenly became unbearably hot.
"You walked outside and you felt like someone was blowing a hairdryer in your face," he said.
The unit's location was relatively safe, though indirect fire attacks were common.
"Somebody would be out in the mountains firing mortars in on the base. That happened pretty regularly and they preferred to do that in the middle of the night…That was probably the scariest things. None of us had to deal directly with enemy attacks," Hoyle said.
Spending nearly a year away from home reminds soldiers of what's really important in their lives.
"I've always loved my family, but I didn't realize until I was away from them for so long what they've meant to me in my life. I've built my whole life around them and to be that far away, that was the hardest part of the entire deployment," Hoyle said.
One of the benefits of war in the modern age is the technology that allows families to stay in touch. Though Internet connections were often spotty and sometimes didn't work at all, Hoyle was still able to call and Skype his family several times a week.
"Being able to Skype and email was a huge help," he said.
Using the video chatting capabilities of Skype, he was able to not only hear his family's voices, but watch his now 4-year-old son grow and change over the months.
Though it was tough being away from his family, he found comfort in knowing they live in a supportive community. Last Christmas, the staff at MedWest Haywood reached out to his family and offered to buy them gifts. They also sent gifts to the soldiers in his unit.
"That was completely unsolicited," he said. "It was just lots of little instances like that. It means a lot to know that you've got people here helping to fill out the gap. That meant everything to me, and it's still going on now. The reception I've gotten since I got into town has been overwhelming."
Now that the soldiers are adjusting to their normal lives again, many of them are able to start back at their regular jobs. Hoyle, who was accepted to the nursing program at Haywood Community College right before he was deployed, hopes he can pick up right where he left off. His wife also just began nursing school this fall and both will be full-time students.
"I think my wife makes me stronger and I think I do the same for her. We work better when we work together," Hoyle said.