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Home at last
Neighborhood shows its support for aviator returning from Afghanistan
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Joni Alford waits her turn as 4-year-old Tristin enjoys the attention from Greg on his first night home from an eight-month deployment. - photo by Photo provided

When 3rd Infantry Division soldier Greg Alford returned to his Effingham County home Wednesday from a tour in Afghanistan, he was touched to see all the “welcome home” signs and American flags in his neighborhood.

“She always does something,” Greg said, turning to his wife Joni and sharing a smile with her.

Alford was one of 270 soldiers from the 3rd Aviation Combat Brigade to receive a big welcome back to Hunter Army Airfield on Wednesday night following eight months in Afghanistan.

“Eight months and five days,” Joni specified.

Following the homecoming ceremony at HAAF, the Alfords headed to their home in southern Effingham County. Third ID regulations prevent Greg from driving for 24 hours after returning from a deployment, so he had a good view from the passenger seat of the red, white and blue ornamenting his neighborhood.

Along with American flags lining Crystal Drive, several yards were adorned with signs saying “Welcome home CW3 Alford” with a silhouette of a helicopter. As a maintenance test pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Alford’s primary job is to test-fly aircraft after they have undergone maintenance.

“When we turned (onto the street), I saw the signs,” Greg said, “and there were more signs and more signs … I knew she had gone all-out.”

It was certainly not a last-minute idea. Joni ordered the signs about three months in advance.

“I was kind of excited,” she said.

Joni and 4-year-old son Tristin had no trouble getting their neighbors to put the signs in their yards. They went door-to-door, Joni said, “with a big smile, an adorable little 4-year-old ... They can’t say no to that.”

Naturally, the house with the most decorations was the Alfords’ — complete with balloons on the mailbox, a banner in the front yard and Tristin’s homemade sign on the front door.

The neighborhood also took some initiative of its own. The Alfords’ good friends Mary and Jon Mistak helped put out the word last month that Greg would be coming home soon, and several neighbors started placing American flags on their mailboxes and in their yards two weeks ahead of his arrival.

This was Greg’s fourth deployment since 2005 — two to Iraq followed by two to Afghanistan. Though every return home has been joyous, Greg described this latest one as “very special.”

“Knowing I had somebody here that loves me and goes out of her way to make it special, and seeing the whole neighborhood being supportive, it’s awesome,” he said.

Despite being roughly 7,500 miles away on his deployment, Greg enjoyed plenty tastes of home. He estimates Joni sent him more than 40 care packages in eight months, which she says helped her cope with him being so far away.

“The day that he left, that’s the one day I allowed myself to cry,” Joni said. “Here I am, a few days before Christmas, it’s very depressing in our house because he made me put up the Christmas tree and all the decorations, and so that’s when I mailed my first three boxes.”

Those first packages included a miniature Christmas tree and a holiday stocking filled with goodies. The next month, Greg received a package of knick-knacks from Tristin’s “Avengers”-themed party for his fourth birthday.

The packages from home always included food — “a lot of food,” they both said — especially Greg’s favorite, dark chocolate.

“I would load him up with dark chocolate from really all over the world,” Joni said, “and just put it in these special boxes that hopefully it wouldn’t melt on the trip.”

While Greg appreciated every care package, his homecoming was much sweeter. No surprise, Joni and Tristin arrived at HAAF more than two hours before Greg’s unit did.

“Tristin and I were the very first two to walk through the hangar doors,” Joni said.

Joining Joni and Tristin were Greg’s close friend Tyler Salsar and Salsar’s parents Steve and Becky. The reunion was everything they all hoped it would be, particularly for Tristin.

“Once he got to Greg, he clung for dear life,” Joni said. “There’s a picture where I’m like, ‘OK, Tristin, can I get in here?’”

And then it was off to resume the life the Alfords enjoy in Rincon. Greg has lived in Effingham since 2006, “off and on in-between deployments,” and he and Joni met in 2008 when she was managing the Springs at Effingham apartments and Greg was one of the first people to move into the complex.

The couple moved to their house on Crystal Drive in 2011. Greg and Joni both have small-town ties, and they appreciate the close-knit feel of their neighborhood.

In fact, they plan to stay in this area after Greg retires from the military. That could come fairly soon if Greg, a 17-year Army veteran, opts to retire at the 20-year mark.

“We love Rincon,” Joni said.

“I love this neighborhood,” Greg said. “This street has a lot of good people on it.”