The journey home: A bittersweet return caps costly deployment
By LAURA RAUCH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 15, 2012
FORT DRUM, N.Y. — Mariah Schneider had cried on her way to the homecoming ceremony. Better to get that out of the way, she thought. It had been four months since her husband, Pfc. Garrett Schneider, had been home on leave, and she wanted to be at her best when he arrived.
The 21-year-old wife stood holding her newborn daughter, waiting anxiously among the crowd for her soldier. Revelry filled the hall, as children waved small flags, the band played sentimental favorites and family members held signs welcoming their beloved.
Schneider, 22, had been deployed to Afghanistan’s Regional Command — South with the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, and was among the first waves of soldiers returning home.
As he and nearly 300 soldiers stood waiting to enter the hall for the ceremony, a serenity settled within him. He’d worked too hard, had too many close calls and lost too much to rush this. He wanted the moment he had longed for to slowly unfold.
Ten days earlier, Schneider and other members of 3rd Platoon assembled at Combat Outpost Nalgham in Kandahar province to begin their journey home. After taking photographs and sharing a few laughs, their company commander drew them close. His words were somber.
When you get home, he told them, you might struggle with guilt or anger; your emotional battles may be yet to come. It’s normal, he assured them. Look to each other; your best support is standing next to you now.
The advice resonated for soldiers with Combat Company, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment. For them, leaving Nalgham was blissful yet troubling. While they were proud of what they had accomplished, too many of them weren’t going home. Seven of their soldiers were killed, all from 3rd Platoon, and 25 were wounded. Two soldiers left without a foot.
“These guys have endured,” Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Kenny Mintz said. “Literally, every inch, every little piece of ground, they had to fight for.”
For many of the veterans, it was their most challenging deployment. For the younger ones, tough was all they knew.
“The enemy was good,” said Cpl. David Gardner, who was on his third deployment. “That’s what made this one the toughest.”
In the days leading up to their departure, their 82nd Airborne Division replacements began arriving. You didn’t have to look at their unit patches to tell the divisions apart. The All-Americans sported crisp new uniforms; the colors of their camouflage still varied, while 10th Mountain soldiers donned faded, battle worn fatigues — a testament to their year in Nalgham.
While the company’s setbacks were significant, they believed their accomplishments were, too. Their village-based operations, where they earned trust and gained support from locals then fortified areas with U.S. and Afghan security forces, were hugely successful, garnering them attention within the military and the national media.
The week before they left, they celebrated their achievements with their Afghan partners by holding a parade down a road nicknamed Montreal in the heart of Nalgham, homeland to many of the original Taliban. When the company arrived last spring, they couldn’t move down Montreal without being attacked. They lost their first soldier there in an improvised explosive device strike. Now they walked it freely, greeted by locals who stood in doorways as soldiers passed by.
For the men of Combat Company, it was assurance of what they and other 3rd Brigade soldiers have said throughout their deployment: When locals turn on the insurgency, the war is over.
For Mintz, the parade was an emotional cap to a challenging year in Nalgham. He couldn’t help but think of the soldiers they’d lost. Then he looked at the ones who had endured, their transformation stood out.
“There were sometimes I looked in those faces — I saw despair, fear, the utter grief,” Mintz said. “Now I see pride, accomplishment, the love of unit and the love of each other.”
For much of the deployment, many soldiers thought they wouldn’t make it back. The devil, it seemed, lived in Nalgham.
When Schneider arrived, he told his wife that if he could just get through the summer, he knew he’d be all right. But then his friends started dying, and he began to think he wouldn’t make it past July. After an entire squad in his platoon was wiped out in a single IED blast in mid-August, hope disappeared.
Mariah began to dread his calls home. He was so distant; she didn’t know how to reach him, and his sadness overwhelmed her.
“On a phone, there’s just words,” she said. “Words are never enough.”
Back in Watertown, the community near Fort Drum where the couple lived, Mariah and some of the other wives had become so fearful of an official visit informing them that their husbands had been killed, that they developed a special knock so they wouldn’t alarm each other.
It was the little things about him that she missed, like seeing his boots in a pile on the floor. Nighttime was the toughest, when it was quiet and she had time to think. She sprayed his cologne on her pillow. Sometimes it helped.
It wasn’t until the fall, when the fighting in Nalgham had slowed and his daughter was born, that Schneider started to believe he might make it home.
As they journeyed from Kandahar Air Field to the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, and then on to Fort Drum, the Combat Company soldiers changed. With each stop, they shed a layer of seriousness.
Their joy was tempered, however, by what they’d left behind.
“A piece of every single one of us is always going to be at Nalgham for the rest of our lives,” Gardner said. Then he spoke of the ones who weren’t coming back. “We’re going to live for them,” he said.
For Schneider, the hardest part of the journey came after the jet touched down at Fort Drum. Soldiers had to endure nearly three hours of paperwork and processing before they could see their families.
It was the final obstacle after a year of waiting to feel like a dad. He’d learned his wife was pregnant on the day he arrived in Afghanistan. He never saw Mariah pregnant, and he missed all the milestones, like feeling the baby kick. Then he missed her birth.
The baby was born three weeks before he made it home on leave.
When the ceremony finally began at Fort Drum, the formalities were short. After a few remarks from the commanding general and the singing of “Climb to Glory,” the 10th Mountain Division song, soldiers fell into the arms of their loved ones.
Wives cried, husbands gushed, children climbed on their returning parents like they would a jungle gym.
Schneider made good on his decision to savor the moment. When he spotted Mariah carrying their daughter, he walked slowly to them, smiling the way only a new father can. He lifted his daughter in his arms and kissed his wife. Then he turned and took his family home. Finally, he was a dad.
Spc. Jeffery Lola, of Company C, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, dons a shirt March 4 featuring seven soldiers from his platoon who were killed during their deployment to Afghanistan as Pfc. Garrett Schneider, right, looks at the barber shop at Manas Transit Center, Kyrgyzstan.
LAURA RAUCH/STARS AND STRIPES