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Devastated Indiana National Guard unit almost home

R. MartUmbarger Adjutant General IndianArmy National Guard  welcomes home members 713th Engineer Company Biggs Army Airfield Ft. Bliss El

R. Martin Umbarger, Adjutant General of Indiana, Army National Guard , welcomes home members of the 713th Engineer Company at Biggs Army Airfield at Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Tx September 17th. The 713th based in Valparaiso is returning from its deployment to Afghanistan. | Claudia R. Kennedy~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 26, 2012 2:23PM

While 95 members of the Indiana National Guard 713th Engineer Company left Valparaiso for Afghanistan nearly a year ago to clear roadside bombs, 89 are returning home this week.

“It was a long hard road,” said company commander Captain Cecil Pendleton, 30. “We accepted our losses, but we didn’t let that overcome us and I couldn’t be prouder of these men,” said Pendleton, who—after completing a few days of medical evaluations and paperwork in Fort Bliss, Texas — will fly into Gary, Indiana, Wednesday afternoon.

“I’m going to give my wife a big hug and just hold her for a while,” said Pendleton.

Pfc. Douglas Rachowicz, 30, will be one of the first to greet the guardsmen.

“I expect some bear hugs, wrestling around, and all that kind of stuff, just good old times, but hopefully not too rough, my back is still broken,” said Rachowicz, who’s home in Indiana recovering from a roadside bomb explosion that killed four of his fellow guardsmen in January.

“I think about them every single day, the guys I was deployed with are almost more my family than my family. I fought with, bled with, and would die for them. And I would do it all again in a heartbeat,” said Rachowicz, who also suffered a broken pelvis, cracked ribs, deflated lungs and cracked jaw.

“It’s very unfortunate we lost the guys we did, but I’m happy we didn’t lose more,” said Rachowicz.

Six members of the unit were killed as the company completed the dangerous mission in Kandahar Province for 10 1/2 months, the most deadly deployment for any single unit in the history of the Indiana National Guard.

• On July 16, 2011, Spc. Sergio E. Perez Jr., 21, of Crown Point, and Spc. Nicholas A. Taylor, 20, of Berne, were killed by small arms fire during an ambush.

• On Jan. 5, Spc. Robert J. Tauteris, Jr., 44, of Hamlet; Staff Sgt. Jonathan M. Metzger, of Indianapolis; Spc. Brian J. Leonhardt, 21, of Merrillville; and Spc. Christopher Patterson, 20, of Aurora, Ill., were killed in the explosion that Rachowicz survived.

In addition, a non-commissioned officer attached to the unit was killed by an improvised explosive device in June.

“Being home has reduced a lot of stress, but it’s a bit of an adjustment,” said Pendleton. “We don’t always have to be scanning the perimeter of the base. I can’t even see the perimeter of the base right now….And we were constantly drinking from water bottles — now when you’re indoors and look at a water fountain, you’re like, ‘can I drink that?’”

The unit’s 95 soldiers left Northwest Indiana on Sept. 30, 2011, after an emotional ceremony at the Porter County 4-H building. A large majority of the soldiers were serving their first tour, as only 14 served in previous missions. About 75 percent of the unit’s members are from Valparaiso or Northwest Indiana. Two soldiers are from Illinois and one from Iowa.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels remarked on the heavy casualties the unit sustained in July.

“Every such loss is a heartbreak,” Daniels said in a statement. “We are hit with special severity here because of the casualties this heroic unit has already endured. No Guard unit in my memory has been assigned a more dangerous mission than the 713th.”

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