SALT LAKE CITY — Spouses and family members shed tears of joy as they reunited with their camo-clad loved ones who returned from an overseas military tour of duty Thursday.
More than 100 soldiers from the Utah Army National Guard's 65th Field Artillery Brigade landed at the Roland R. Wright Air National Guard Base in Salt Lake City after a long Middle East deployment. The unit deployed to the United Arab Emirates in support of Operation Spartan Shield, assisting Central Command in maintaining its military presence in southwest Asia.
The unit served on the deployment for more than 10 months after departing from Utah last March. For those left behind, like Maddie Allen — wife of deployed Staff Sgt. Shay Allen — reconnecting with their soldiers was a long-awaited delight.
She recalled the time last year when her husband had to leave her and their newborn as the unit went on its assignment.
"(Our son) was five weeks when he left," she said. "It's been kind of a blur — just knowing that you had to get through each day, which was one day closer to when he gets home."
Fortunately, extended family was nearby to help when the new mother needed a hand or comfort during the more challenging times. The deployed father said having that family support was a relief, especially when he had concerns about their day-to-day well-being — which was among the biggest difficulties about being away on his first extended deployment.
"Just trying to make sure my family is safe and taken care of back home," he said. "It was easy doing the work over there. The hard part was missing (my wife and 11-month old son, Kyrie)."
He lamented missing some of his son's early milestones, like taking his first steps and getting his first teeth. Fortunately, the couple was able to video chat almost every day, which helped relieve some of the stress of being so far apart for nearly a year, he said.
Though he was separated from his family for an extended period, Allen said he is still grateful to be able to serve the country. The reunited family will now take some time to get reacquainted and spend some much-needed quality time together, he said.
"I'm gonna take some leave and we're going to Disneyland," he said.
Similar to the Allens, Sgt. Jullienne Labrum struggled to be apart from her husband Jake and their 2-year old son Kolton on her first long deployment.
"It was hard to be away from home in a (foreign) land I didn't know," she said. "It was tough."
Jake Labrum said they spent some time beforehand preparing for the deployment, trying to do what they could to make the separation less stressful on their son.
"It was tough," he said. "This is our first kid and luckily we've got a lot of good family support to get us through it."
They said maintaining constant communication was the major reason they were able to bridge the long physical disconnect.
"We had to talk through every little bit of (the separation)," she said. "From the moment I found out I was deploying to the moment I got home, you have to talk about everything."
"Communication is huge — just trying to set everything up for success," Jake Labrum agreed. "Do the best you can. That's all you can really do."
While many members of the 65th Field Artillery Brigade were experiencing an extended deployment for the first time, others like Sgt. Maj. Greg Hansen had already done multiple stints away from their families. He said being able to acclimate to that kind of prolonged separation is what make those who hold down the homefront as noble as any of the soldiers.
"It's easy for us as soldiers to go do what we do," he explained. "We train for this day in and day out. Right now is the hard part for us to come and face reality and step back into (their lives)."
Hansen said families that are used to being apart have learned to adapt their lifestyles and behaviors to move ahead with their lives when their soldiers are away.Comment on this story
"They are so apt to do things on their own without me that I kind of have to ease into (their routine) when I get back," he explained. "They make it easy for us to come home and transition back."
Upon their return, the unit's work was lauded by their commanding officer.
"The soldiers of this unit have completed, with honor, the mission assigned them in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility," said Col. Adam Robinson, commander of the 65th Field Artillery Brigade. "Their efforts are in keeping with the finest traditions of the United States Army and the Utah National Guard. They represented well the citizens of the great state of Utah."