FORT CAMPBELL — One of the last brigades called up to be a part of President Barack Obama's 30,000-troop surge in Afghanistan is returning home to Fort Campbell.
Several hundred soldiers from the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division returned to the installation on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line on Thursday to families and friends eager to see them again after a year at war.
The brigade's more than 3,000 troops operated in the eastern Paktika province to maintain security along the mountainous border with Pakistan. About 15,000 soldiers from Fort Campbell have returned from Afghanistan this year, and several thousand remain deployed.
The brigade is familiar with the area after having deployed there in 2008-09. The province has been crucial territory for NATO operations as fighters often use the border to travel between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Back home in Clarksville, Tenn., Rachel Smith tried not to think too much about the risks for her husband, Sgt. Jeremy Smith, 25, who was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment and based at Forward Operating Base Sharana.
"The waiting is the worst part," Smith said as she stood with her husband's family, including his parents, siblings and nephews, outside an airplane hangar looking for the plane as it approached the Fort Campbell landing strip. The entire family wore matching brown T-shirts with his name, making them easy to spot in a packed crowd of soldiers and families.
This latest deployment, which was her husband's third combat tour, has been difficult for the couple's 3-year old boy, Aiden, she said.
"Most of his life he's been with me," Smith said. "Daddy kind of comes and goes."
Smith tried to keep busy during the deployment by going back to school for her master's degree at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn. The Army just announced deployments would be shorter next year, dropping from a year to nine months, but Smith thinks the demand on soldiers will still be high.
"It might go down (to nine months), but that makes me nervous that they will just go more frequently," Smith said.
After a long flight home, Sgt. Smith, of Woodstock, Ga., said there were things he would miss about Afghanistan, like the homemade bread that he tasted in the villages he visited during his deployment. And he felt that his unit made a difference in their area of the war-torn country.
"I saw pretty good change while we were out there," he said, adding that he wouldn't mind going back.
But for right now, he's ready to focus on his family.
"It's been a real long time," Sgt. Smith said.
Spc. Eric Mackey said this was his second deployment, but his first away from his 4-year-old namesake son. The younger Eric started crying when his father picked him up in his arms after getting off the plane.
"It's a little harder this time because I have a family," Mackey said. "He's starting to understand more."
Nikki Jackson, 39, has had a hectic time taking care of five children while her husband, Spc. Vandols Jackson, was deployed. But she was overjoyed to see him get off the plane. The family had survived.
"We came, we fought, we conquered," she said laughing.