SALT LAKE CITY — Lt. Andrew Olsen marvelled at how much his three children had grown during his 11-month deployment to Afghanistan as he descended the airport escalator Sunday.
The Olsen children were on the front lines of loved ones waiting at Salt Lake International Airport, raising homemade signs declaring "My dad is home!" and "Best Christmas ever!"
Olsen swept his three children into a hug as they all spoke at once, overjoyed to fill their father in on the happenings of the past year. Their mother, Kate, watched and wept before falling into her husband's arms.
The nine members of the U.S. Army 405th Civil Affairs Battalion returned to Utah just in time for Christmas, although the group was originally assigned to remain in the field through January.
"It's such a relief that he's finally home," Kate Olsen said. "I have people ask me all the time, 'Why would you allow your husband to do that and go in harm's way?' and I say, 'There isn't a greater person that could go.'"
The children have learned to help one another and to love their country in their father's absence, Kate Olsen said.
"It's amazing, I've noticed a huge difference," she said as 9-year-old Jackson hurried off to help carry his father's pack.
Andrew Olsen was quick to compliment his wife for "keeping the home fire burning" and making his military service possible, calling his deployment a sacrifice they were honored to give.
"It sounds a little cliche, but we feel that we've been really blessed," he said. "We wanted an opportunity to give back and to serve our country as a family."
Seven-year-old Clara Olsen said all she wanted for Christmas was to have her father home. And a new doll. She now looks forward to going out for ice cream together.
"I want to go on a daddy-daughter date," Clara said, clinging to her father's side.
The soldiers were stationed in eastern Afghanistan, managing a small team that joined maneuvering infantry units to lend support and legitimacy to the civil government, Andrew Olsen explained.
The majority of the 405th's Delta Company is from Las Vegas, but Utah families worked to prepare a homecoming that was just as heartfelt despite its smallish size. They hugged, passed out flags, took photos together and wiped stray tears as they celebrated together.
The Utah families sought each other out during the deployment, building a network of support within their small community, Crislee Moreno said. The group comforted and cared for each other, making the absence of her husband, Cap. Alberto Moreno, a little easier to bear.
"We tried very hard once a month to check on each other," she said. "We spent a lot of time together, and I think that helps (the soldiers), to know that we're taking care of each other too."
The Moreno family is no stranger to separation, and prior deployments have kept Alberto away at Christmas, making this holiday a true gift, Crislee said.
Alberto Moreno said he wouldn't allow himself to believe he was going home early and would be with his wife and two daughters for Christmas until the plane set down Sunday night.
"It really sinks in to you when you step out of the airplane" he said. "There are still a lot of things that can happen, so it's never until you're here that it kind of hits you."
The Moreno daughters, 14-year-old Laney and 10-year-old Lauren, were delighted to take their father home to a new house, which he had never even seen. The women moved partway through the deployment, but their home will now be complete.
Crislee Moreno said the family will be staying home Monday, reveling in the chance to sit quietly together, although Lauren admitted she is hoping to go bowling.
"She's got all sorts of things she wants to do," Crislee Moreno said, smiling as the family gathered luggage and headed for home.
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