As soon as Lt. Col. Scott Cunningham shouted "Dismissed!" 250 Nevada Army National Guard soldiers broke formation Monday and rushed to the outstretched arms of their loved ones.
The scene as the sun rose over Mandalay Bay’s parking lot along the Strip was a fitting climax to nine months of combat operations in Afghanistan, a tour that was filled with dozens of close calls and many successful missions in some of the most volatile regions of the world.
"They went over and basically just tore it up," said Cunningham, who led the largest overseas deployment of troops in Nevada’s National Guard history.
"Definitely there’s progress being made over there," he said, adding that "counterinsurgency wars are not won in a day."
For Cunningham, his biggest success was bringing all 730 soldiers back alive. Hundreds more from the squadron were expected to arrive Monday night in Las Vegas from Indianapolis, north of where the soldiers landed last week for demobilization at Camp Atterbury, Ind. Others were waiting for flights to Reno and out-of-state locations, where soldiers had come from to augment the Nevada National Guard deployment.
In all, more than 45 soldiers received Purple Heart medals for wounds or injuries while fighting enemy forces.
One soldier, Spc. Alejandro J. Alvanez , received two Purple Heart medals and an Army Commendation medal.
"It’s finally over," said Alvanez, a 19-year-old Salvadoran native who lives in Las Vegas and became a U.S. citizen in November during his tour.
"When bullets are flying all you got to do is remember your training and follow that," he said. "You put fear behind it and do your job."
Alvanez’s first close call came in December on a narrow, dirt road when his vehicle was blasted by an improvised explosive device, or IED, while returning from a town in Laghman province.
"You can’t really do anything about IEDs," he said. "They’re pretty well hidden."
Several soldiers in the vehicle were hurt by the explosion. Alvanez’s legs were injured but he managed to pull another injured soldier to safety.
"I just handed him to the medics."
In January, his squad was ambushed with small arms fire coming from the edge of a valley.
He said he realized the enemy was targeting him because he was manning the biggest weapon, an M-240B machine gun.
"First I saw the bullets landing in front of me," he said, describing how he was hit in the leg as he jumped behind a berm.
"Once I got behind (it) that’s when I started suppressing the enemy. I let go with 250 rounds," Alvanez said.
After the firefight, his vehicle blew a tire and rolled over in a corn field. Again, he helped get others to safety before a helicopter arrived to pick them up.
Looking back on those encounters, he said, "I can’t tell you I was scared. But, all I can tell (you) is I was really concerned about IEDs."
Spc. Anthony Robinson, a forward observer at Najil outpost, said coming home to Las Vegas "feels better than anything in the world. … Close to heaven."
Combat was "anything other than nice. It’s not pretty. We do what we have to do," he said, holding his 2-year-old niece, Jahzara McDowell.
Sgt. David Gallagher was elated to be back with his wife, Marie, daughters, Shaylea and Alexis, and son, Pvt. Josh Boothe, who recently joined the Army.
Gallagher, 42, was part of a provincial reconstruction team.
"That was good seeing the Afghanistan people actually going to the schools that we built for them and the hospitals," he said. "That was all positive. Of course, missing the family and missing the States is the hardest part. … What I told everybody is you don’t know what you miss until you get over there, and it’s all the little things you miss the most.
"There were good days and bad. When we actually touched down in the plane a huge cheer went up."
Kelly Cruz, 27, was anxious to see her husband, Spc. Juan Cruz, of Las Vegas.
"It’s been hard," she said, as the soldiers prepared to march from buses through the parking lot. "We’ve been married two years and he’s been gone one of them."
One of Sgt. Nate Cothran’s daughters was born during the deployment.
His wife, Jamie, a kindergarten teacher at Cortez Elementary School, said she was relieved to have him back.
"It’s been insane. Crazy," Jamie Cothran said, holding 7-month-old Jade, while son Riley, 4, waved a flag and daughter, Mia, 1½, helped post a "Welcome Home" sign that read: "Where all your journeys end."
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308.Nevada Army National Guard troops return