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‘It’s been a long nine months’: The final big group of paratroopers returns home to Alaska from Afghanistan

Each day, for at least three weeks, Sophie Herr got a marker and wrote a number on her son's diaper. Then she took a photograph and texted it to her husband in Afghanistan.

Ever so slowly, the numbers turned from double-digits to single. Friday, Henry's diaper read "1!" It was just about time for the 13-month-old boy to get his dad back. Herr could hardly sleep that night.

Each day, for at least three weeks, Sophie Herr wrote a number on her son Henry Herr’s diaper, counting down the days until her husband returned from Afghanistan. (Sophie Herr photo)

"It's been a long nine months," she said. "I'm just really excited — way excited."

On Saturday afternoon, Herr followed blond-haired, smiling Henry as he tottered around a cavernous hangar on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Hundreds of other spouses, children and friends waited alongside them.

Some held signs. Some held balloons. Some had messages written on their shirts like, "Outta my way I get my Poppi back today." All watched for their paratroopers. The countdown was over.

"I just want him back already," said Samantha Wallace as she held her 2-year-old son, Avery, and waited for her husband, Staff Sgt. Andrew Wallace. The boy clutched an orange balloon to give to his father.

The final few minutes felt like hours.

Most of the 2,200 U.S. Army Alaska paratroopers who deployed to Afghanistan left in September, in support of Operation Freedom's Sentinel, the U.S. counterterrorism mission. The paratroopers belong to the Anchorage-based 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, also known as the "4-25."

They have returned to Anchorage in waves over the past month. Saturday marked the final, big return flight, signifying the end of the deployment.

Nearly 350 U.S. Army Alaska paratroopers with the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division returned to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, AK on Saturday June 2, 2018 after completing a 9 month deployment to Afghanistan. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Families waiting said they felt excited and anxious to see their paratroopers. Some said they also felt a little bit nervous. The deployment wasn't without tragedies for the 4-25.

A month ago, one 4-25 soldier, Spc. Gabriel David Conde, 22, was killed by enemy gunfire shortly before he was scheduled to come home. Another soldier, 24-year-old Staff Sgt. David T. Brabander, died in Afghanistan in December in a rollover crash unrelated to combat, according to the military.

A lot had changed at home, too, in those nine months.

Since Sophie Herr's husband left for Afghanistan, Henry had learned to walk and talk. Each week, Sophie sent her husband an email with updates about their growing son. She titled them, "The Henry Herald."

As the moment of the soldiers' return grew closer, Sophie and Henry readied their sign: "Daddy I'm right over Herr."

Finally, a gigantic garage-like door lifted, and a sea of camouflage marched in, nearly 350 soldiers. A band played. People cheered.

Capt. Tyler Herr said he saw his family's sign through the crowd. He had waited for this moment ever since he left.

He and his wife walked quickly toward each other. They hugged. They kissed. They kissed again. The soldier held his son.

"This is the best feeling in the world," he said.

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