His T-shirt announcing, “I waited 9 months to hug mommy,” 3-year-old Gabriel Grunza was making the most of his first opportunity when Sgt. 1st Class Anna Grunza of Westmont stepped onto the tarmac Wednesday at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport.
Missing her family was the hardest part of her year of active duty, Grunza said, still hugging her son outside the Army National Guard helicopter hangar.
Grunza was one of about 80 members of 1st Battalion, 104th Attack Reconnaissance Regiment, Pennsylvania Army National Guard, welcomed home Wednesday from duty in Afghanistan.
“This is a very exciting time for them,” Capt. Scott Dunlap said. “It was emotional for some and joyous for all.”
Dunlap was not among those deployed, but was on hand for the homecoming.
Surrounded by his family, Staff Sgt. Ben Smith of the West End described the Afghanistan duty as “long and hot, but a good deployment overall.”
Sgt. Chloe Clements of Ligonier said the temperature reached 117 degrees one day.
“It is a different kind of hot,” Spc. Andrea Gross of Derry said, hugging her sons, Alex, 3, and Dustin, 5.
As a helicopter maintenance worker, Gross said her job was relatively safe – and busy.
Clements also downplayed the risk of working in a war zone.
“I was just doing my job, but in a different country,” she said.
The AH-64 Apache helicopter unit’s prime mission is to support ground troop operations, Dunlap said.
“Reconnaissance is big,” he added.
Grunza said she will cherish her role in humanitarian missions at the Red Crescent Orphanage.
“We were handing out food and clothes to the kids,” she said. “It was a way of giving back.”
But she will never forget two who did not come home.
“I want to be able to talk about the two great aviators who lost their lives,” Grunza said.
Chief Warrant Officer Matthew Paul Ruffner of Punxsutawney and Warrant Officer Jarett Yoder, 26, of Mohnton, Berks County, were killed April 9 when their Apache helicopter crashed in eastern Afghanistan.
Both aviators were members of the 104th contingent based at Fort Indiantown Gap, but were working in Afghanistan with the Johnstown unit.
Randy Griffith covers military news for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/photogriffer57.