Soldier returns from Afghanistan to Fort Bliss, holds daughter for first time

By VIRGINIA ISAAD | El Paso (Texas) Times | Published: July 29, 2013

FORT BLISS  -- When Sgt. Bryan Houston was deployed to Afghanistan last year, he left with mixed emotions.

His wife, Alicia, 28, was six months pregnant and he knew it would be a while before he would get to meet his baby.

On Thursday, he got to hold his 4-month-old daughter, Harleigh.

Houston is one of nearly 200 soldiers from the 4th Battalion,

17th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division who returned to Fort Bliss this week.

The unit, nicknamed the 4-17th Buffaloes, deployed in December of last year to join a coalition made up of more than 62 nations focused on promoting stability and security in the region.

Bryan Houston, 27, and his wife met in El Paso and married about a year and a half ago. Alicia gave birth to Harleigh Lynn Houston on March 15 while he was in Afghanistan.

After Harleigh's birth, the couple Skyped three times, Alicia Houston said. She often mailed him photographs of Harleigh in different outfits including an image of Harleigh wrapped in the American flag.

"It's like meeting someone for the first time," Alicia Houston said before her husband arrived Thursday night. "I have to get to know him all over again. I feel excited and happy."

For Bryan Houston's return, Alicia Houston organized a surprise reunion with his family, including his mother and grandmother, who drove from Arkansas and Indiana to El Paso. Alicia Houston also spent an hour making Harleigh's dress.

"I was shocked, I didn't expect this at all," Bryan Houston said when he arrived. "It's overwhelming and amazing. I've been waiting since March to meet her."

The Houstons are just one example of families that gathered at Biggs Airfield to welcome home the troops.

April Saechao waited for her husband of 10 years with homemade leis containing candy and liquor.

"Every deployment I make leis for his whole platoon," Saechao said. "There are 18 in his platoon and I make two for each one."

Sgt. 1st Class Joey Saechao gave Bryan and Harleigh Houston a leis.

Joey Saechao returned from his fourth deployment after having three tours in Iraq.

"It was the shortest deployment, but it felt like the longest because the kids are older and they understand what's going on," April Saechao said.

"They miss daddy."

Their 4-year-old son, Kameron, was overjoyed to discover his father would be able to accompany him to his first day at preschool.

"It was a rush. It's always good to see your loved ones," Joey Saechao, 31, said as Kameron held on to him. "It was tough this time because of politics. I felt a lot of pressure."

While plenty of fathers and mothers reunited with their loved ones, many soldiers, including Spc. Tara Johnson, were greeted by friends.

"I'm thankful to be alive and thankful to be back," said Johnson, who has been at Fort Bliss for four years.

She reunited with friends including Chris Smith, 25, who did a tour in Iraq in 2007.

"It's nice to have our friend back," Smith said. "When I got back, I had no one waiting for me so I wanted to be here."

Fort Bliss has an estimated 6,000 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.

In the next month and a half, roughly 200 soldiers will be returning from Afghanistan almost every week, according to Sgt. 1st Class Sarah Goss.

The flight from Afghanistan took an estimated 30 hours.

Late Thursday, as the families slowly began to trickle out and the parking lot, there were a few soldiers hanging around outside including Sgt. Michael Hughey.

Hughey, 23, was waiting for his sister to pick him up so he could surprise his wife, Taylor, before her due date on Sunday.

"I was nervous at first but now I kinda miss Afghanistan," Hughey said. "I miss my buddies. You make lifelong friends."

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