By JOSH VARDAMAN
Courier staff writer
---- — OTTUMWA—The price for keeping America safe sometimes comes at the cost of missing loved ones, but the wait for families of the Iowa National Guard 833 Engineer Company is finally over.
Soldiers arrived home Saturday at approximately 3 p.m. to cheers and tears of joy at the Evans Middle School gymnasium in Ottumwa. Friends and families filled the gym to capacity, and many sported posters welcoming the soldiers back to Iowa.
“This is a huge day for the Iowa National Guard,” said Col. Greg Hapgood, Iowa National Guard public affairs officer. “Not only do we get these soldiers home from their third deployment and everyone is home safe, but they make it home before Thanksgiving and they are the last Iowa National Guard unit out of Afghanistan.”
The company has spent almost an entire year deployed for the third time. For their first two deployments overseas, they were in Iraq, but this time they were sent to aid troops in Afghanistan. Now that they are home, there are no more Iowa National Guard units stationed in the Middle East, but there are a few individuals who are still there and a unit was recently deployed to aid troops in Kosovo.
During their third tour in the Middle East, the company conducted more than 200 route clearance missions, cleared more than 12,000 kilometers of Afghan roads and sported an IED find and clear rate of over 75 percent. With their help, the Afghan soldiers were able to conduct 10 decisive operations, eliminate over 70 IEDs and discover numerous weapons caches in the Uruzgan province, which is in the very center of the country.
While family members for most of the soldiers came to meet them at the gymnasium on Saturday, one family sat at home with no idea their beloved soldier was back in Ottumwa.
Staff Sgt. Robert (R.J.) Mason Jr. and his wife, Alina, successfully kept his homecoming a secret from his two sons and two of her three daughters, which was no small feat considering how curious they are.
When the company arrived home, only Alina and friends were there to meet R.J. The children were waiting at home, expecting Alina’s return so they could take family photos. Little did they know, R.J. was just minutes away, and he was going to give them a big pre-Thanksgiving surprise.
Though Alina’s oldest daughter, Haleigh, 13, knew her step-dad was home thanks to a little slip-up, the other four children seemed to have no idea, although R.J.’s oldest son, Robby, 10, had a hunch that his dad was coming home.
“[Haleigh] wouldn’t tell me the surprise,” Robby said. “I was like, ‘what’s the surprise,’ and she was like, ‘guess.’ I said, ‘my dad’s coming home early,’ and she said, ‘nope.’ I know it’s got to be that, there’s no other surprise that can happen. It didn’t really surprise me at all.”
As the cameraman, secretly an Ottumwa Courier reporter, got the children to sit together for a quick photo, R.J. came through the back door of their home to surprise his family. It took all of them a second to realize exactly who they were looking at standing in their doorway, and a state of shock seemed to come over their faces.
Robby and his little brother, Michael, 3, quickly ran to put on their camouflage outfits so they could match their dad, who was still sporting his National Guard uniform. More pictures and plenty of hugs followed, as the Masons properly welcomed back their surprise soldier.
The Masons were just one example of the many joyful 833rd Company homecoming stories from the weekend. Getting to come home just before the holiday season was surely the best gift the soldiers and their families could ask for. Welcome home, 833 Engineer Company, and thank you for helping to keep us all safe.
— To see reporter Josh Vardaman's Twitter feed, go to @CourierJosh