Eight months and 8 million gallons after going to war, water purification troops returned home Saturday after being gone as long as any Utahns participating in Operation Desert Storm.
The Utah Army National Guard's 120th Quartermaster Detachment is relatively small - only 14 members - but received a welcome as grand as any so far at the Salt Lake International Airport. A throng of family members and friends was joined by Gov. Norm Bangerter, Utah Adjutant General John L. Matthews and four bus loads of fellow National Guard members.No one knew what was ahead when the water purification unit from American Fork was called to active duty Aug. 27 in the first round of activations to hit Utah. And when the 14 soldiers stepped off the plane in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in September, no one had any idea the group's 90-day call to active duty would last almost three times that long.
The detachment is the only group that Salt Lake reporters were able to accompany to the Middle East. That exposure early in the military buildup kept the group visible in the media through the various stages of Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
The flood of emotions detachment members shared with family and friends at the airport reflected the fact that the group had been through a stressful ordeal. Most members had been sick for several days. They talked of their work providing culinary water for other soldiers and about pulling guard duty when they were in Iraq, away from any water sources for them to treat.
They talked about working together, and of being sick of each other.
They talked about staying in the Army - but mostly about getting out.
Now that he's done his duty, detachment member Steve Anderson said his 10 years in the Guard isn't worth spending another 10 to be able to collect retirement. He'll be getting out as soon as he can. So will Steve Willingham, who said the decision to end his military service after eight years in the Guard and Army Reserve was made with the help of some strong lobbying from his family.
Willingham's plunge back into his civilian career won't take long either: He'll be back to work teaching school on Monday.
For Mike Ison, the return home Saturday meant seeing the bride he left three days after getting married last August. For Mike Wright, the reunion meant seeing a grandchild for the first time and two children who were married while he was in Saudi Arabia.
Anderson said he plans to spend some time growing out of his military haircut and easing back into civilian life before going back to work at Brigham City's wastewater treatment plant.
The stories continued as the crowds that had choked the airport concourse slowly broke up in a scene much like many Utah families are still waiting to experience. About 1,600 reserve component troops from Utah are still waiting to come home.