FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. –The 46 soldiers had turned in their rifles, found their bags and were just minutes from going home for the first time since they deployed to Afghanistan a year earlier.
They stood together in a ragged formation for their last briefing as their families waited in a dining hall about a quarter-mile away. “I know the hockey playoffs are on television tonight. I know Osama got killed last night,” Staff Sgt. David Archibald told the troops. Neither was a reason to go out and get stupid drunk, he said.
Archibald’s warning, which blended references to the hockey playoffs and the killing of the world’s most wanted terrorist, seemed to perfectly capture the mood among the 101st Airborne Division soldiers and their families. All the soldiers were happy that Osama bin Laden had been killed. But they had other – more immediate — matters on their mind.
They wanted to hug their children, kiss their spouses and try to pick up the lives that had been put on hold for a long and deadly deployment to Afghanistan.
Only a few weeks earlier, the troops had taken part in a large-scale helicopter-borne assault into the isolated mountains along the Pakistani border that was designed to push back the enemy in preparation for the arrival of the next Army unit.Six U.S. soldiers were killed along with more than 130 enemy fighters, according to the U.S. military. For the soldiers and their spouses the joy of coming home mixed with mourning and worry about resuming lives changed by 12 months of separation and combat.
The soldiers returning from Afghanistan had learned about bin Laden’s death during a 2 a.m. refueling stop in Canada. About 15 minutes into the layover, one of the officers from the flight flipped on his laptop and quickly shouted the news to his fellow soldiers who initially assumed it was some officer’s idea of bad end-of-deployment joke.
The troops in the empty terminal quickly crowded around the officer’s laptop. “We didn’t believe it until we saw it ourselves,” said Sgt. Bill Blessing, a 23-year-old from Skaneateles, N.Y. “There wasn’t a lot of celebrating. It was pretty quiet. We were all exhausted.”
Capt. Thomas Billig, the unit’s company commander, described the news as the icing on the cake” after a long and difficult deployment.
After about two hours, stuck at the small airport in Newfoundland, the soldiers lined up and marched back onto their plane for the last leg of a week-long journey home from the remote mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
As the troops’ charter made its final descent into Fort Campbell Army Air Field on Monday morning, their families gathered astride the tarmac. A light rain fell and the spouses and parents made small talk. They strained to see the aircraft through the clouds.
“We got the best news last night?” said a spouse whose husband had returned home a few weeks earlier.
She was standing with two other Army wives who were just minutes from being reunited with their husbands and had no idea what she was talking about.
“You know Osama bin Laden is dead,” the first spouse explained.
But the death seemed like an abstraction when compared with the reality of a one year-long deployment coming to an end
“I was pumped up last night,” one of the waiting wives said of the news of bin Laden’s death. “But this morning we are much more excited about this — about our soldiers coming home.”