Troops return home from Afghanistan |

Troops return home from Afghanistan

Jim Scripps

Carson City Sheriff’s Deputy and Nevada Air National Guardsman Gary Underhill was at an emotional loss for words on Monday evening after setting foot on Nevada soil for the first time in three months.

“It’s just so hard to describe,” he said. His wife and three of his five children were on the tarmac at Reno/Tahoe International Airport, whooping and hollering along with a crowd of flag-waving well-wishers there to welcome home the 13-soldier squad from its 90-day deployment in Afghanistan.

Underhill’s children surrounded him while he congratulated his fellow soldiers and received accolades from his brothers and sisters, the other members of the 152nd airlift wing of the Nevada Air National Guard.

“It seems like just yesterday that we left here,” he said. “Now it’s time to take a step back, breathe and relax.”

Beyond that, Underhill has one more task to complete before his trip is complete.

“My Lieutenant, Mark Marshall, is a Vietnam vet,” he said. “He gave me the flag he carried in Vietnam. I told him I’d come back alive and give it back. That’s what I’ve got to do.”

War-weary, all 13 — including Carson City Sheriff’s Deputy Harry “Wayne” Wheeler and Nevada State Trooper Mike del Soltado of Carson City — made the journey safely after serving as a security forces squadron at Bagram Air Base.

“It’s like no feeling in the world,” del Soltado said, greeting his wife Katherine after three months apart. “The accommodations were less than perfect.”

After leaving Afghanistan, the squad stopped in Qatar and Germany before it was staged at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey for out-processing.

While there, squad members visited the former site of the World Trade Center Towers, a trip arranged by Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn) after he visited the troops in Afghanistan.

“It was just emotionally heart-wrenching,” Underhill said. The squad viewed the tangled wreckage from a special visitor’s platform. “The pictures you see in the media just don’t do it justice. It really underscores why we went.”

Underhill said he was particularly moved by the photos placed by family and friends of fallen firefighters and police officers. “That’s why we were there,” he emphasized.

Janet Wheeler, wife of Wayne Wheeler, felt relieved when the father of her three children — with one on the way — stepped into her arms.

“My stomach has been in knots all day,” she said. “Hopefully he won’t be sent back too soon.”

The 152nd Airlift has been mobilized since September and barring any changes in its status, will continue to be on active duty until fall 2003. The two-year mobilization is unprecedented in Lt. Col. Jeri Van Leuven’s two decades with the guard.

“The last time was probably the Pueblo crisis in 1968 (when North Korea attacked the naval converted coastal freighter USS Pueblo),” she said. “There were probably 180 mobilized during Desert Storm. Intel has been mobilized several times too.”

Another squad, approximately the same size, will leave for an unspecified location within the next two weeks. Van Leuven said three squads are rotating on 90-day deployments, but “at any time they could tell us we’re all going,” Van Leuven said.

Congressman Jim Gibbons (R-Nev) welcomed the troops home.

“They were magnificent,” he said. “First of all, they provided security for the men and women over there. They struck a blow for freedom and liberty. It’s just as important as the guys climbing the hills looking for Al Qaeda.”

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the efforts of the Nevada Air National Guard.”