"How long does daddy get to stay?"
"Forever. He's staying forever."
It is a question that Jeanette Nielsen, 26, of Carson City, is finally happy to answer for her son. After 15 months of wait, worry and hope, all she wished for was to see her husband, Steve, again and know he was home to stay.
"He's sitting here next to me," she said. "It's so hard to believe he's here and I can touch him again."
Jeanette's husband, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Steven Nielsen, 30, was among the 100 members of Company D, 113th Aviation Company who arrived home Saturday morning after more than a year in Afghanistan. Nielsen is a CH-47 Chinook helicopter pilot.
His return home was, by his own admission, slightly awkward.
"We've all changed. I've changed and she has changed. Our relationship has grown stronger, though, I think," he said. "We need to get to know each other again.
"Having a family is everything to me. I wouldn't have made it over there without (Jeanette). She had the hard job, I wouldn't have made it without her."
When he left, his son Dylan was 5 and his daughter Kaylee was only 1.
"She was barely doing words, now she is doing whole sentences," Steve said of his daughter.
The couple admits it was a hard year on both of them. For Jeanette, it was the fear and wondering about each phone call and knock at the door. For him, it was the loss of the family and freedoms.
"I don't really watch the news," Jeanette said. "I honestly just can't handle it. Watching that stuff really messes with your head. When the phone rings, it's just a fear that you can't describe."
What allowed them to get through it was frequent communication and honesty with each other.
Steve said, "I always tried to tell her what was going on and be honest with her because the families around here would here rumors, so I always tried to let her know."
Stationed on a base near Kandahar, Afghanistan, and missing his family, Steve was also dealing with the loss of the freedoms he was fighting to preserve.
"You have no idea what we give up. We are locked up in essentially a prison. The only difference is that prisoners have more rights and we carry guns," he said. "Americans have no idea how lucky we are. Being over there was like going back to Biblical times."
Surrounded by his wife and children at his home Saturday afternoon, Steve said he is glad to be back, but remembers the five soldiers from his company who didn't get off the plane.
"We'd all been shot at, shot up and shot down, but here's this guy you had been joking with that morning and he's gone. Gone forever. He won't be coming home to his family."
Five members of the 113th were lost in combat, including Chief Warrant Officer John Flynn and Sgt. Patrick Stewart, who were killed when their helicopter was shot down by hostile fire in September.
"I cried for days after that," Jeanette said. "You know these people and it's like you feel the loss with them. Going to those funerals was so hard. It really rocked them, and us."
Even though her husband is home, Jeanette said the public should never forget those serving and protecting them overseas.
"These guys believe in something, they believe in what they are doing. Show your appreciation and don't forget about them. Don't forget what they are doing. These guys need that, they need the support. Knowing that people back home support them and what they are fighting for."
Over the next week, Steve said, he just wants to reconnect with his family and maybe open some Christmas presents that have been awaiting his return.
"Christmas is an important thing for us, so I decided to keep the decorations all up so we can celebrate as a family," Jeanette said. "He had no clue I left it up for him."
While Steve said the gesture was important to him, he knew that what was in the boxes wasn't what he wanted.
"I don't want anything else. Everything I got today was all I wanted. I came home to a family that loves me."
-- Contact reporter Jarid Shipley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1217.