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Deadliest ever deployment for Ind. National Guard unit finally ends

Spc. Kody Stroud kisses his fiance Kristy Ploboth South Bend during homecoming celebratifor IndianNational Guard 713th Engineer Company soldiers Army

Spc. Kody Stroud kisses his fiance Kristy Ploof, both of South Bend, during the homecoming celebration for the Indiana National Guard 713th Engineer Company soldiers at the Army Aviation Support Facility in Gary, Ind. Wednesday September 26, 2012. The soldiers returned from a year's deployment to Afghanistan. Stroud and Ploof got enganged in January via Skype while Stroud was deployed. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 29, 2012 6:29AM

Tears streaming down his face, Sgt. Joshua Willette pulled a thin black and white American flag patch out of his pocket Wednesday and handed it to Bob Leonhardt in a hangar at the Gary Airport.

“Thank you so much,” Willette, 24, said to Leonhardt in a quiet moment amid the rapturous chaos surrounding the homecoming of the 713th Engineer Company, which just completed the deadliest ever deployment for a unit of the Indiana National Guard.

“It’s the flag I wore on January 6,” Willette said.

That’s the day an explosion in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan killed four members of the company, including Leonhardt’s 21-year-old son, Brian. During the company’s one-year deployment, six of 95 members died.

Willette, a medic, was one of the first on the scene when Brian Leonhardt was killed. The patch was from Willette’s combat uniform. He gave it to Bob Leonhardt before he found his own family in the cheering crowd at the airport.

Leonhardt, in fact, was the first person he saw.

“I think I’m going to remember that moment,” Willette said. “The look in his eyes. I can’t describe it.”

His son’s dog tags tucked in his shirt, Leonhardt said he had planned to cheer loudly when the men walked in.

He couldn’t make a sound.

“I was too busy tearing up,” he said. “It just hit me like a ton of bricks. Here they are. Finally.”

Military homecomings are always emotional, filled with tears and hugs as fathers meet their babies for the first time, kiss their wives after months away, hug their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers.

But the group converging Wednesday may be just a little closer than most — the close-knit soldiers who endured the horrific year patrolling roads and clearing roadside bombs in Kandahar and the families waiting for them to return.

“We’re a pretty small size,” said Specialist Zach Carter, a 26-year-old medic from Hobart, Ind., who was also one of the first on the scene of the deadly Jan. 6 explosion. “After everything that happened everyone became really close. The hardest part is going to be getting used to not seeing each other every day.”

Carter said when he saw Bob Leonhardt for the first time Wednesday, “everything kind of comes back. His son was a great soldier — one of our leaders. It was an honor to meet his father.”

Leonhardt’s tears started Wednesday when he pulled into the parking lot and saw a car decorated with the words “Welcome home! We love you, daddy.”

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” he said. “It’s really hard. It’s emotional.”

The 713th is based in Valparaiso, Ind. Most of the group had never served overseas before this deployment.

“It’s been a long year,” said Capt. Cecil Pendleton III of Indianapolis. “Through adversity this unit and our families have grown stronger and overcome.”

Rachel Pendleton was in tears when she reunited with her husband.

“It didn’t feel real until I had him in my arms,” she said. “I’m so happy for all the families. They went through a lot in Afghanistan, and we went through a lot at home.”

For the 89 men returning home Wednesday, there was no shortage of visible signs of support.

Volunteers with the Indiana Patriot Guard erected rows of American flags around the Gary Airport and, with smiles and waves, directed the military families to the appropriate area.

Inside the hangar, a large banner honored the names of every member of the Indiana National Guard, living and deceased.

For Barbara Stassin, grandmother of Willette’s wife, the visual patriotism renewed her spirit in America.

“When we pulled in here and saw the flags I thought ‘This is America,’” she said. “I thought we were losing it. Our leaders have betrayed us. I wish they would be here to see something like this.”

Around 11:30 a.m., after several dozen of the soldiers’ children were introduced and handed goodie bags, the hangar erupted in cheers as a door rose to reveal the camouflage-clad returning soldiers.

Families and friends waved signs and American flags.

“It’s kind of unreal right now,” said Specialist Carter. “It hasn’t quite hit me that we’re actually done.”

Across the hangar, Lt. Steve Otten dropped to his knees to hug his sons, Kaden, 9, and Logan, 5. Kaden said he couldn’t wait for his dad to pitch him some baseballs at their Crown Point, Ind. home.

Otten, returning from his fourth tour of duty, sobbed while embracing his wife, Jamie.

“This time was really hard,” Otten said. “I lost my best friend, Staff Sgt. Metzger.”

Metzger died in the same explosion that killed Brian Leonhardt as well as Spc. Robert J. Tauteris, Jr., 44, of Hamlet, Ind. and Spc. Christopher Patterson, 20, of Aurora.

On July 16, Spc. Sergio E. Perez Jr., 21, of Crown Point, Ind. and Spc. Nicholas A. Taylor, 20, of Berne, Ind. were killed during an ambush.

Jamie Otten said the six deaths made this tour harder than her husband’s previous three tours of duty. So did having sons who were old enough to understand that their dad was at war but not old enough to totally understand what that means.

“There’s really not much way to explain it,” she said.

Kelly Goebel, who lives north of Indianapolis, arrived early so she could sit in the front row in hopes that she would be the first person her son, Aaron, 19, saw.

“I cried all the way here,” she said, tearing up about an hour before the soldiers arrived.

On Sept. 1, Goebel’s oldest son, Andrew, returned from Afghanistan to his home in North Carolina, where he met his 6-month-old son Tucker Walter for the first time. She has another son, Adam, who is a Marine, and her 16-year-old, Austin, plans to enlist in the Army when he is old enough.

While she has no formal military background, she said her sons called her “Sergeant Mom” when they were younger. Her son Andrew once asked why she always cried when he returns home instead of when he left for the warzone.

“When you leave is when I hold my breath,” Goebel said she told her son. “When you come home that’s when I can hold you in my arms and cry. I can exhale.”

Her husband and her sons’ father Glenn died nine years ago from a brain aneurysm. She prays that he watches out for their boys.

“I always tell him if you don’t bring my babies home to me safely, when I get to heaven I’ll beat your [behind],” she said, adding that on special days like Wednesday she feels her late husband is with her and their sons.

“Proud is not even a word — it goes way beyond that,” she said. “I’m honored, honored to be their mom.”

Nearby, another mother, Heather Voorhees, played with 8-month-old son Kaiden on her lap. The two were waiting for Jeremy Voorhees, who watched Kaiden’s birth on Skype from Afghanistan.

Heather Voorhees said Kaiden was about to take his first steps, and she couldn’t wait to share the milestone with her husband. She talked to Kaiden about his dad from his first moments of life.

“I tell him that his dad loves him and is going to come home soon and they can be together,” she said.

Portage, Ind. resident Song Hee Melendez said her 2-year-old daughter, Talia, was impatient for her father’s return, asking every day if he was home from work.

“She was so excited in the car ride here, saying ‘I love my daddy,’ ” Melendez said.

Melendez’s husband, Jeffrey, said he’s so happy to be back home.

“I don’t think it’s really hit me yet,” he said.

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