(WASHINGTON) — With Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement that 33,000 troops have been withdrawn from Afghanistan, the surge announced by President Obama in 2009 is officially over.
But what that means for the troops and their families was on display earlier this week in Fort Bragg, N.C., as 300 personnel from the 82nd Airborne Division -including the 1st Brigade Combat Team and the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade -returned home from their deployments in Afghanistan.
For six months, members of the combat team – known as “the Devils in Baggy Pants” – had been stationed in southern Ghazni Province on the infamous Highway One between Kabul and Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold that was literally riddled with IEDs. The team’s job: to clear the highway and keep it safe.
“The purpose of the surge in Ghazni was to knock the Taliban on their heels,” said Sgt. Michael MacLeod. “The 1st Brigade was the glove on that hand.”
In those six months, the team killed or captured at least 400 enemy combatants and was awarded at least 165 Purple Hearts, as well as more than 100 awards for valor.
Throughout their yearlong deployment, the Combat Aviation Brigade – known as “Pegasus” – completed more than 2,500 Medevac missions and flew more than 175,000 hours, more than any other combat aviation brigade since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom.
But last week as all 300 paratroopers set foot once again on U.S. soil, the statistics and awards faded away as they saw their loved ones waiting for them with signs and smiles and cheers to welcome them home.
“You crave a moment so bad, and then when it’s there, it’s almost seemed like it wasn’t real,” said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Ortiz, “like a happy ending to a bad movie. It was the perfect ending to whatever we went through out there.”
1st Lt. Dan Loeffler dropped out of college his senior year to enlist in the Army after Sept. 11, 2001.
After a six-month deployment in one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan, Loeffler boarded a C-17 military transport aircraft in September, returning to the U.S. after the successful completion of his fifth deployment.
At Fort Bragg to welcome him home were his wife and two children Allyson, 6 and Hayley, 2.
Maj. Clydellia Prichard-Allen of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade is a 21-year Army veteran and was responsible for drafting letters to the family members of paratroopers who lost their lives at war. Her unit suffered six losses.
“Each loss was a portion of your heart being taken out,” she said.
In May, she was at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan when Obama made a secret visit on the anniversary of the death of Osama Bin Laden to announce that the surge would finally come to a close this year.
Sgt. 1st Class Ortiz of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, who sent a video a day home to his wife and children, struggled to hold back tears as he embraced his pregnant wife and two daughters.
Ortiz and his wife’s third child – a daughter – is expected to be born on Veteran’s Day.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Sheena McKenzie, CNN
Kevin Liptak, CNN
Barbie Latza Nadeau, Margot Haddad, Livia Borghese and Angela Dewan, CNN