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Welcome home for the 849th

LITCHFIELD — The parking lot filled with vehicles, tissues were passed around and tensions were high as people waited for the buses to arrive.

The buses contained husbands, sons and brothers from 28 Minnesota communities who had just finished an 11-month deployment in Afghanistan.

More than a dozen squad cars, firetrucks and EMS vehicles led the two buses full of grinning and waving soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard’s 849th Mobility Augmentation Company to the Civic Center in Litchfield Tuesday afternoon. People crowded both sides of the street and added their cheers to the blaring sirens and horns to welcome the 86 soldiers home.

When the buses arrived, the soldiers unloaded and were met with a hero’s welcome. People cheered, clapped, waved signs and made themselves known to their loved ones. The soldiers were all smiles as they saw their families and significant others in person for the first time since last July.

It was the first deployment for 78 of the soldiers. However, for being new to deployment, Capt. Matthew Jukkala said the entire group under his command did an amazing job.

“The guys had an extremely good reputation among even the long-standing active-duty guys who were there. They outperformed almost everyone and had an amazing work ethic,” Jukkala said. “It was extremely difficult for everyone, but when it came down to it, they got the job done.”

While being in Afghanistan is difficult, it was also challenging for the families left in the United States. While the men cleared thousands of miles of roads and removed improvised explosive devices, their families were back home working, celebrating holidays and running errands while missing and worrying about their loved ones.

“His second deployment has been so much harder,” said Pat Minette, mother of Staff Sgt. Adam Minette. “The five getting hurt from his deployment in January made me realize how close he could have been to something like that.”

“Holidays are tough,” said Darlene Judes, grandmother of soldier Brent Judes. “The same family pictures were taken at every holiday, except Brent was missing.”

After Jukkala’s speech, the men were relieved of duty, families were reunited and long overdue hugs and kisses were exchanged. The two words spoken over and over by the soldiers were “amazing” and “overwhelming.”

While the soldiers are back home, the work is not over for them or their families.

“The first 90 days after deployment are statistically more dangerous than the entire deployment,” Jukkala said.

Jukkala asked the families to be patient with his soldiers, as reintegration can be extremely difficult for some. Jukkala also told his soldiers to stay out of trouble and away from possible pitfalls such as gambling and alcohol.

The soldiers have 30-, 60- and 90-day Beyond the Yellow Ribbon sessions that are designed to help them connect with community support, community jobs and to help make reintegration as easy as possible.