CONCORD — Parents and friends turned out for a formal welcome-home ceremony Sunday for members of a New Hampshire Army National Guard unit that helped get wounded soldiers in Afghanistan to medical care.
Charlie Company, a medical evacuation unit that is part of the 3rd battalion, 238th General Support Aviation, includes Guard units from New Hampshire and Michigan. The company was sent to Afghanistan last July and returned in January. The soldiers helped by the Charlie Company Medevac unit included many who had been critically hurt and for whom immediate medical attention was essential to saving their lives.
“On good days, when they’re sitting around giving the first sergeant a hard time, the slow days are a good day for us,” said Sgt. Brian McKay of Somersworth, who served as the company’s first sergeant during the mission in Afghanistan. “A busy day is not a good day for anybody.”
Members of the unit were grateful for the recognition and happy to return home after months of service in a war zone. Many said they compartmentalized their thoughts of home and family by focusing on their individual jobs and the unit’s mission.
“You make special times for that because if you do it constantly throughout the day, it would be a kind of conflict in emotions,” said Michael Fletcher, a chief warrant officer with Company C. “I would always partition out a part of my day — at the end of the day — where I could hopefully get a phone call or a Skype, and that was time you set aside for people at home.”
For Fletcher, the people at home included his wife and four daughters, ranging in age from 13 to 3. The eldest, Reese, is a seventh grader at West Running Brook School in Derry. Reese Fletcher said she was “happy and glad” when her father returned home after long months away.
For many in the company, the months in Afghanistan, on top of 2 1/2 months training at Fort Hood in Texas, were not the first time their Guard service had taken them away from home.
Sgt. Tim Comtois of Stratford needed his mother’s signature to join the Guard at the age of 17.
During his more than seven years with the N.H. National Guard, Comtois has been called to Guatemala and Iraq, in addition to his recent assignment in Afghanistan. He has also helped people in Vermont recover from the ravages of Hurricane Irene and while on weekend duty at home, was sometimes called to help find wayward hikers in New Hampshire’s wilderness.
His mother, Janice, was at Sunday’s ceremony, re-living the relief and pride she felt when her son returned home with his company in January.
“When he’s deployed, I cry any time I see an Army guy,” Janice Comtois said. “When you see the welcome-homes on TV or hear of the copter crashes over there, your heart beats because you don’t know and you say, ‘Is it mine?’”
Janice Comtois also has a daughter on active duty in the Army and another son who served in the Guard,
“I’m very proud, because they don’t do it for the gratitude; this doesn’t mean anything,” she said gesturing to the large crowd that gathered in an aviation hanger for the welcoming ceremony. “They do it because they want to; he joined knowing what he wanted to do. He always wanted to be a medic.”
Sgt. Comtois, who has served as a volunteer firefighter, said he will now work full-time in construction with a Deerfield firm.
Members served in four forward operating bases, fortified installations that support soldiers and units involved in military operations.
The unit’s commander, Maj. Jason Richards of Bow, said his soldiers helped to close three installations that were no longer needed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and had few issues during their time. The Guard’s state commander agreed.
“They performed their mission flawlessly,” said Brig. Gen. Craig Bennett, commander of the New Hampshire Army National Guard.
McKay, the sergeant who oversaw day-to-day operations, said the soldiers were able to rise to a high level of service because they focused on their job responsibilities — which included emergency evacuation of hundreds of wounded and injured soldiers, including 238 of which were urgent or priority evacuation cases.
“It’s the mission first, they deal with (the emotions involved) afterward, they were very professional” McKay said. “You put your own personal feelings aside to get the job done and whatever they do after that, they’ll decompress and there’s people there that they can talk to,”
Fletcher noted that members of the unit felt pride in their work because they helped so many comrades make it home.
“We were going out and picking up somebody who got injured on the battlefield; your goal is to get that guy, who is hurt, back home alive,” he said. “That’s really the only thing that you’re focusing on when you’re doing your job over there.”