AUGUSTA — The three girls, Ana, Audrey and Mia, wore sun dresses to combat the 85-degree heat. The boys, Adam Jr. and Mike, wore camouflage shorts.
All five clung to their dad as if they hadn’t seen him since August, because, well, they hadn’t.
Capt. Adam Cote just smiled.
“I managed to miss all their birthdays while I was gone,” said the Sanford native, who brought home with him a Bronze Star Medal. “I’ve got some making up to do.”
Cote and about 150 fellow soldiers with the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion returned to their loved ones Tuesday after spending the past 11 months away, nine of them in Afghanistan.
Hundreds of wives, husbands, parents, grandparents, children and others packed the sweltering Augusta Armory early Tuesday afternoon and eagerly awaited the return of the unit.
When the caravan of buses arrived and the soldiers filed in, one by one, the crowd erupted in sustained applause. After the soldiers were officially dismissed, there was a mad scramble, followed by hugs, kisses and tears.
Amanda Breton of Sabattus, who completed her first deployment with the 133rd, was greeted by more than a dozen family members, all wearing matching orange T-shirts with “Breton” and “133? screen-printed on the back.
Her husband, Jason Breton, said the past year has been a challenge. “I got to see the other side of this, I guess,” said Breton, who also is a soldier.
In fact, Jason Breton is on alert to deploy later this year with another Maine-based unit, the 262nd Engineer Company out of Westbrook.
In another corner of the armory, Amber Bohn gently rocked a stroller that held her 2½-month old daughter, Charlotte. She found out that she was pregnant the day after her husband, Brian Bohn, deployed. He would meet his daughter for the first time Tuesday.
Something else was waiting for him when the family returned home to Saco – a new house.
“I picked it out by myself,” Amber Bohn said. “I hope he likes it.”
Capt. Brian McClellan of Eliot scooped up his 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Beth McClellan, and gave her a big kiss. His daughter put her little arms around her dad’s neck and cried.
“It feels great to be back,” McClellan said later Tuesday.
He plans to spend the rest of this summer hanging out with his wife, Amy, and their three children, 10-year-old Catie, 5-year-old Tommy, and Sarah. A couple of camping trips are on the family’s calendar.
Eventually, McClellan will return to his full-time job as a sales representative for AstraZeneca Pharmaceutical – a far cry from his military assignment.
McClellan did route clearance in Afghanistan, which means he located improvised explosive devices. His team brought in Afghan soldiers who were trained to defuse the explosives.
McClellan trained with the 251st Sapper Company in Norway, Maine, but deployed with the 133rd.
Tony Cincotta, a Korean War and Vietnam War veteran, drove from Berwick to greet his grandson, Seth Michael Adams, 19, the youngest member of the 133rd. Like many veterans of his generation, Cincotta said he’s glad that today’s soldiers receive the send-offs and homecomings they deserve.
“I can remember when I came home from Vietnam, I was warned not to wear my uniform,” he said.
Adams said the homecoming meant a lot to him. “You couldn’t ask for anything more,” he said.
The 133rd, made up of combat engineers, was among the units responsible for winding down America’s longest war, dismantling forward operating bases and transporting heavy equipment in the sprawling, war-torn nation of Afghanistan.
The battalion deployed to Iraq in 2004-05, during the height of the war, and lost two of its soldiers – Sgt. Thomas Dostie of Somerville and Staff Sgt. Lynn Poulin of Freedom – when a suicide bomber disguised as an Iraqi soldier infiltrated a mess hall at an operating base in Mosul.
Composed of more than 500 soldiers in all, the 133rd became the focus of news stories in April, when the Portland Press Herald reported on a plan by high-level Guard officials to trade the battalion to Pennsylvania for an infantry unit, in a larger restructuring of the entire U.S. military.
Former Maine Guard leaders came out against any move of the engineers, and for weeks, state and Guard officials differed on what would come next.
Gov. Paul LePage, commander-in-chief of the Maine National Guard, has insisted that no decision has been made. In a news conference in May, he said the final authority to approve any military restructuring rests with Congress.
He and Brig. Gen. James Campbell, the Guard’s adjutant general, have criticized the Obama administration for its top-to-bottom assessment of military forces that likely will lead to reductions in troop strength across all branches.
Neither LePage nor Campbell has resolved conflicts between LePage’s statements that any transfer is still years away and an email that Campbell sent in April to Maine’s congressional delegation saying the move is set for 2015.
On Tuesday, no one was talking about that.
Samantha Campbell, whose husband, John, was deployed with the 133rd, said she has paid attention to the reports of the unit’s uncertain future, but she isn’t concerned.
“He’s home safe,” she said as the couple’s 3-year-old son, Quinn, hugged her legs. “There are more important things.”
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.