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'It's wonderful'
Families, soldiers joyously celebrate end of Afghanistan deployment
dad and william 1
Frank Patterson Sr., right, greets his son William Patterson after William and his unit, Alpha Battery of the /118 Field Artillery Battalion, returned to Fort Stewart early Tuesday morning after 10 months in Afghanistan. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue
Community welcomes home Alpha Battery
The Springfield-based Alpha Battery of the 48th Brigade’s 1/118 Field Artillery Battalion will have a welcome home procession Wednesday in Springfield. Soldiers will assemble in the lot near Springfield City Hall and march down Laurel Street to the Effingham County Administrative Complex for a short ceremony. Citizens are encouraged to line Laurel Street on Wednesday morning to welcome the soldiers back to Effingham County.

FORT STEWART—The old adage is that absence makes the heart grow fonder. But even the advancements of modern communication couldn’t quell the emotion of loved ones seeing, touching and hugging their soldiers upon their return.

About 80 Georgia Army National Guardsmen, the bulk of them members of the Springfield-based Alpha Battery of the 48th Brigade’s 1/118 Field Artillery Battalion, returned to friendly soil and waiting arms early Tuesday morning at Fort Stewart’s Cottrell Field.

“It’s better than anything I’ve ever seen,” said Heather Durden upon greeting her husband Staff Sgt. Ricky Durden at the end of his deployment to Afghanistan. “It’s wonderful.”

For the Durdens of Guyton and the dozens of families gathered at Cottrell, they’ve been able to stay in touch constantly with their soldiers during their 10-month tour in the faraway combat zone. Through cell phone calls, e-mails and facebook messages, the distance of nearly 8,000 miles was closed — although not completely.

“It’s been tough,” Heather Durden said, “but it’s been OK.”

Said Guyton’s Michele Patterson, whose sons Sgt. Frank Patterson Jr. and Spec. William Patterson were part of the first wave of 48th Brigade soldiers to return: “We went through a lot of calling cards.”

Because of the time difference between Afghanistan and Effingham County — nine and a half hours — phone calls were difficult. Text and Facebook and other social media messages were the best way to stay in touch.

“That has helped,” Heather Durden said. “It kinda lets you know they’re OK.”

“I worried about them every day,” said Shannon Patterson, Frank Jr.’s wife. “The phone calls definitely helped.”

Not only did the constant communication help the families, it provided a solace to the soldiers.

“It’s done a lot,” said William Patterson. “It kept the support coming from all different areas.”

Added older brother Frank Patterson Sr.: “It’s nice to be able to talk every day. It really helped.”

Frank Patterson Sr. was on a mountaintop in North Carolina at a Boy Scout camp when his eldest son — one of Frank Sr.’s two sons who were deployed to Afghanistan and came home Tuesday morning — called him. It was not long after the unit Frank Jr., who had served a combat tour in Iraq, was attached to had been in an engagement with enemy forces.

“He’s huffing and puffing and out of breath,” Frank Sr. said of how his son sounded on the phone. “It was scary, too.”

The elder Patterson son, now 26, has been in the service for almost nine years. Before his senior year of high school, he went to boot camp and attended college on a National Guard scholarship.

He gave that up to go to Iraq.

“He didn’t want to be left behind,” his dad said.

When he got home, he recruited younger brother William, 23, to the service. William was named the Alpha Battery soldier of the year and was runner-up for the brigade soldier of the year.

“We’re quite proud of these boys,” Frank Sr. said.

The Pattersons also have a cousin who was wounded in the Nov. 5 Fort Hood, Texas, shooting.

The Afghanistan deployment was the second combat tour for Alpha Battery and the 48th Brigade in the last four years. The unit spent a year in Iraq in 2005-06. Many of the soldiers, such as Ricky Durden, served in that rotation.

As a result, the families also knew what to expect from having their loved ones in a combat zone on the other side of the world.

“You’re not so left in the dark. You’re more prepared to be in the dark,” Heather Durden said. “It’s a lot easier; we’ve been through this before, we can do it again.”

The now widespread use of social media outlets and cell phones, compared to just a couple of years ago, also didn’t take the place of the package from home. Heather Durden and her family had a box they would send to her husband and kept filling it with such things as Little Debbie snack cakes, “a funny book or something,” she said, and CDs of pictures of what was going on back home.

“Even though they have Facebook and the Internet, they don’t always have the capability to download large files,” she said.

With the deployment now over, there are now plans to put into motion. For William Patterson, it means a substantial purchase.

“I’m gonna get me a new truck,” he said.

Frank Jr. and Shannon’s 2-year-old son Colin was staying with her parents for the welcome home ceremony. And his father is anxious to start playing with him again as quickly as possible.

“I’m going to take a shower and wear my 2-year-old out,” Frank Jr. said. “It’s nice, nice to be home. It’s been hard. It’s just another journey in the book.”

Ricky Durden finished his degree in pre-education as he was leaving, his wife said, and hopes to start looking for a position as a high school teacher. Before that, however, there is one trip the Durdens have in mind.

“We’re going to Disney World,” Heather Durden said. “The last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about Disney World.”

“The best part of being deployed is coming home,” Ricky Durden said. “It’s just like winning the Super Bowl — I’m ready to go to Disney World. Some days, you’re like, when is this going to be over, and other days, you know what you’re fighting for. I’m just ready for it to be over.”

And their families are happy that the long separation is over.

“I just had to have hope in faith and trust that they would come back home,” Michele Patterson said. “We’re very thankful.”