Indiana National Guard unit returns from deadly tour in Afghanistan
By Kara Spak and Christin Nance Lazerus Sun-Times Media September 26, 2012 1:52PM
Updated: September 26, 2012 11:48PM
After nearly a year in Afghanistan, 86 members of the Indiana National Guard 713th Engineer Company arrived safely in a Gary airport hangar Wednesday for a tearful, hug-filled reunion with friends and family.
Six members of the unit died overseas, making the deployment the most deadly for a unit in the history of the Indiana National Guard.
“It’s overwhelming, it’s great, it’s overwhelmingly great,” said Capt. Cecil Pendleton III. “It’s been a long year.”
“It didn’t feel real until I had him in my arms,” said his wife, Rachel Pendleton, tearing up. “I’m so happy for all the families. They went through a lot in Afghanistan, and we went through a lot at home.”
The hangar erupted in cheers as the door rose to reveal the returning soldiers. After Pendleton dismissed the soldiers, families and friends rushed to greet the men and women who spend 101/2 months in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan. The Valparaiso-based unit was responsible for the dangerous mission of patrolling roads and clearing away roadside bombs.
Portage resident Song Hee Melendez said her 2-year-old daughter, Talia, was impatient for her father’s return, asking if he was home from work every day.
“She was so excited in the car ride here, saying ‘I love my daddy,’ ” Melendez said. Melendez’s husband, Jeffrey, said he’s so happy to be back home.
“I don’t think it’s really hit me yet,” he said.
The family of Cpl. Tyler Bowers were counting their blessings as he was injured by shrapnel during an explosion in July 16, but he returned to duty. Bowers is planning on getting married next year and he and his fiancee, Amanda McVey, are planning to visit Las Vegas soon.
“I have a prayer group every Wednesday night for all of the boys,” said Barbara Krathwohl, his grandmother. “Just to keep them safe.”
Bowers, who received the Purple Heart, was injured in the ambush that killed two other members of the unit: Spc. Sergio E. Perez Jr., 21, of Crown Point, and Spc. Nicholas A. Taylor, 20, of Berne.
The memory of those lost also was fresh on the minds of soldiers like Sgt. Joshua Willette, of Highland.
“I’m really happy and this is nice, but at the same time it’s sad because of the guys we lost,” Willette said.
The unit lost six soldiers during the mission. Spc. Robert J. Tauteris, Jr., 44, of Hamlet; Staff Sgt. Jonathan M. Metzger, of Indianapolis; Spc. Brian J. Leonhardt, 21, of Merrillville; and Spc. Christopher Patterson, 20, of Aurora, Ill., were killed on Jan. 5 when their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.
The unit’s return home is bittersweet for Patterson’s family.
Patterson, a 2007 West Aurora High School graduate, was studying music education at Valparaiso University when he was called to war.
“It’s extremely bittersweet,” his mother, Mary Patterson, said Tuesday. “We are so happy the guys are home — we are. They’re our sons, too. We are just really wishing our son had come with them.”
Patterson said the homecoming of the 713th Engineer Company has stirred up their world, adding that she and her husband, Robert, have been thrown back to January, when they lost their son.
“It’s hard,” she said. “But we’re so happy for the families.”