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Soldiers’ return to Las Vegas ‘a great Father’s Day gift’

Fifty citizen-soldiers will take Father’s Day to a new level today after they reunited with the sons, daughters, dads, moms, sisters and brothers they left a year ago to train troops in Afghanistan.

"It’s a great Father’s Day gift. I’m ecstatic that he’s home," said Vietnam War veteran Juan Clar as he pondered the return of his son, Army Reserve Capt. Joe Clar, before the soldiers were cheered and embraced by their families Friday night at McCarran International Airport.

"It was a long time ago when I went through the same thing when I got back from Vietnam," said the elder Clar, an Air Force veteran.

He described the contrast between his lackluster reception when he returned from Vietnam in 1972.

There was "no fanfare. In fact, some of our guys were spit on. But I’m glad for my son it’s a lot better."

SOLDIERS REUNITE WITH FAMILIES

After a homecoming ceremony Saturday at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Joe Clar said the return of his Las Vegas-based Army Reserve 650th Regional Support Group "couldn’t be better."

"I’m not a father myself but being able to be back with my brother, who is a father, and obviously my dad, the timing couldn’t be better," he said.

"It was absolutely moving when we came off the plane. We didn’t expect such an arousing applause … I don’t think anyone in my company didn’t get at least a little emotional. Coming down and being with the families, everyone lost it at that point."

For Frank Slaghuis, father of Cpl. Joe Oblek, the moment was "awesome."

"Coming home on Father’s Day is just a stroke of luck. And, it’s really good."

Joe Oblek said he was "just happy to see my girls."

Zoie Oblek, 8, and her sister, Aysa, 4, craned their necks to see their father as he approached the throng of family members in the baggage claim area. Zoie gripped a small U.S. flag attached to a stick while Aysa held a sign that read, "Welcome Home! We missed you Daddy!"

Their mother, Heidi, had her hands full trying to control the anxious girls. "It’s just pure excitement," she said. "They haven’t been able to stop moving."

After spending a few minutes hugging and kissing her dad, Zoie paused to offer her thoughts.

"I think it’s really great because he said we’re going to spend lots of time with him. Me and my sister."

Capt. Jared Hoopes, of Henderson, was happy to be home even though he said the deployment to advise Afghan soldiers on the logistics of supporting military operations "was probably the best experience of my life."

"It’s a difficult process. They’re learning," he said about the Afghan National Army. "Our ways are not necessarily their ways. They’re getting it little by little but they need a lot of help still."

His 8-year-old son, Jaxon, said having his dad back home means "a lot of fun things to happen. More grilling, more motorcycle riding and more camping. I think we’re going to do a lot of grilling."

Charles Puú, a helicopter door gunner during the Vietnam War, said the return of his daughter, Sgt. Sharlani Puú, gave him goose bumps.

"I’m just happy," he said. "They did their job and I’m glad she’s back."

Sharlani Puú, a chaplain’s assistant, said the coincidence of the homecoming right before Father’s Day was special.

"It’s definitely a blessing," she said. "I feel like I came home right on time to be with my dad and be with my daughter and to be able to celebrate this time with the family."

The soldiers represent a variety of civilian occupations including school teachers, college professors, security guards, police officers, accountants and mechanics. One is a locomotive engineer.

‘CLOSE CALLS’ IN AFGHANISTAN

Joe Clar, who in civilian life is an information security officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said there were "a lot of scary moments" from indirect fire, including mortar and rocket attacks on forward operating bases.

"I know the people on my team were averaging three to four convoys outside the wire a week. We had close calls. You can’t really trust anybody that’s not in uniform," he said, noting that aside from a few minor injuries the soldiers returned unscathed.

"The best thing about coming back is we got all of our people back, all of our equipment accounted for and everyone is as healthy as can be."

Sgt. 1st Class Sarah Dean and Master Sgt. David Dean, a married couple on the deployment, rescued a stray Afghan dog, Pop-Tart, so named for the blueberry toaster pastries they fed her.

Pop-Tart sported a red-white-and-blue scarf while Sarah Dean led her through the airport.

"She’s happy at home (in Las Vegas) and life couldn’t be better for her."

BRIGADIER GENERAL SPEAKS

At the homecoming ceremony, Brig. Gen. Wayne Brock wished the soldiers a happy Father’s Day, saying it "is a glorious day to welcome home America’s sons and daughters."

"Let’s not forget 10 years ago, the reason we came into the situation we’re in now, the merciless attack on Pennsylvania, New York and Washington, D.C., that was determined to shake the foundations of the nation and destroy the spirit of America.

"Just as average Americans went to fight for America’s independence in 1776, these young men and women stepped up to stand and serve to say democracy is worth defending," Brock said. "Our solidarity today sends an unmistakable message to those who stand in the way of Afghanistan’s progress."

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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