MADISON, WI (WNG) By 1st Lt. Joseph Trovato, Wisconsin National Guard - The final 13 members of the 82nd Agribusiness Development Team (ADT) reunited with their families during a homecoming ceremony in Madison, Wis., Feb. 22.
The ADT returned to the Armed Forces Reserve Center after a yearlong mobilization to Afghanistan on a mission rife with changes.
The unit originally consisted of 58 Wisconsin Soldiers and Airmen, but a host of mission changes resulted in 35 returning home in September. The 13 that stayed behind remained in Afghanistan until their return to the United States on Feb. 17. After several days of de-mobilization training at Camp Atterbury, Ind., the unit returned to the Badger State where their families eagerly awaited.
Brenda Sessler, of Milton, Wis., jokingly said she was looking forward to having her son, Staff Sgt. Dylan Sessler, shovel the driveway when he got home. More importantly, she looked forward to the normalcy his return would provide.
"It's great. I'm very proud of him and all of the Soldiers and what they've accomplished, but it's nice to have them home."
Anna Oehler, one of the unit's family readiness group leaders and wife of officer in charge Maj. Fred Oehler, shared her enthusiasm for the 82nd ADT's return home by saying, "Anytime Soldiers come home it's a wonderful wonderful time. Families are excited. Having Soldiers, especially someone who has been gone for a year, it's wonderful."
The homecoming will be especially sweet for Sgt. Rodney Hillskotter, of Weyauwega, Wis. One of his triplet brothers remains hospitalized after a heart transplant operation in December. "We're going right from here to there, and hopefully we'll have a good family reunion there," his father, Doug, said before the ADT arrived.
With their families waiting, the unit finally arrived back to Madison where senior National Guard leaders and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch greeted them.
"It is a humbling experience to be able to say thank you to those who have represented Wisconsin so well halfway across the world," Kleefisch said during her remarks to the Soldiers.
"Your mission changed many times while you were in Afghanistan," she added. "Thank you so much for representing Wisconsin while being agile, being nimble, being flexible, and incredibly brave. I am so proud that you are Wisconsinites, and I am prouder still that you are home safe and sound."
In his own message to the returning unit, deputy adjutant general for Army, Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, said, "Thank you for your service, for what you have done really in demonstrating the true capability of the Wisconsin Army National Guard, demonstrating the adaptability and the flexibility as you transitioned from one mission, to another mission, to another mission throughout the course of the last 12 months while you've been deployed."
Anderson was quick to thank the families for their sacrifices throughout the deployment. Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, the state's adjutant general shared a similar sentiment, calling families the "strength of the National Guard."
"The strength of the National Guard is our communities and our families, and you are part of our extended family," he said. "I am so grateful to you. Thank you for all that you do."
"There is something miraculous about going overseas, serving this country in uniform, and you fly back to the United States, that door opens, and you walk back onto your homeland," Dunbar said. "You can just smell the freedom. There is something incredibly special about the men and women in uniform who go overseas to difficult places and do the job for our nation."
While overseas, the 82nd ADT endured several mission changes. When they first arrived to Afghanistan last spring, their primary objective was to connect Afghan farmers with local government and build demonstration farms. But eventually most of the 58-member team was sent home, leaving the final 13 members to continue the work of building the agricultural infrastructure of Afghanistan's Kunar Province at the provincial level.
By the end, the unit had conducted more than 200 combat patrols and made more than 500 engagements with key local leaders in 13 of Kunar's 15 districts. They also supported more than 40 medical evacuations on their forward operating base and managed more than $12 million worth of construction projects.
The unit's members collectively earned five Bronze Star Medals, nine Army Commendation Medals - including one for valor - eight Navy Achievement Medals and one Purple Heart.
"Welcome back and thank you for just an outstanding job," state Command Sgt. Maj. Brad Shields told the returning Soldiers. "There were a lot of challenges in the mission. You showed your professionalism by the way you adjusted and adapted and made Wisconsin proud by your professional service while you were in Afghanistan."
Waiting to greet Master Sgt. Kenton Bauer, of Sparta, Wis., were his wife, Heidi, and his three-year-old daughter.
"It feels rather surreal," Heidi Bauer said upon reuniting with her husband. "I've been kind of numb for the past year."
"This is great being home," Master Sgt. Bauer said. "It doesn't seem real yet, because the whole time that we were going through the de-mobilization process was on Camp Atterbury, and you walked around other people wearing uniforms. Other than eating lunch today, this is our first chance to be outside of somebody's fence."
Addressing his Soldiers for the final time, officer in charge Maj. Fred Oehler said, "It's been a pleasure and honor serving with you over this last year."
Wisconsin's 97th ADT recently replaced the 82nd in Afghanistan, where they will continue to build the agricultural infrastructure in Kunar.