Dustoff Soldiers return to Landstuhl

Story and photos by Rick Scavetta
U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern

Dashing across the helicopter hangar, Gavin McKinstry, 2, scrambled into his father’s outstretched arms.

Sgt. Darrell McKinstry, an Army flight medic, was among dozens of Soldiers from Company C, 2nd Battalion, 214th Aviation Regiment who returned Sunday from Afghanistan, where unit helicopter crews — known as “Dustoff” — flew medical evacuation missions over the past year. McKinstry hoisted Gavin up on his shoulder, embraced his wife Rachel and smiled down at his 4-month-old son Emmett.

“It’s wonderful to be back after a job well done by all the guys in our unit,” he said. “It’s great to be home with my family. I missed them tremendously, especially the little ones.”

During their first week back, Soldiers work half days. U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern supports returning Soldiers by offering reintegration classes on Daenner Kaserne on everything from reuniting with family, finances and counseling to local recreational opportunities, said William Dial, a garrison reintegration management specialist. The garrison also provides transportation for returning Soldiers upon their return as well as free day care.

“The garrison strives to make the transition from deployment to home station as easy as possible for returning Soldiers and their families,” Dial said. “This effort is supported by all our resources.” 

Soldiers get briefings from Army Community Service, Family & Morale, Welfare and Recreation, and the chaplain’s office. Then comes medical and dental checks, plus other unit-run classes, Dial said. At the unit, weapons need cleaning, equipment needs repairing and a change of command needs planning. Once that’s done, Soldiers get a well-deserved break.

During the deployment, families also relied upon community support, said Alexa Zenk, wife of Maj. Patrick Zenk, the company commander. Programs offered through the garrison’s ACS and FMWR really helped, Zenk said. Free child care was provided for spouses of deployed Soldiers so they could attend FRG meetings, ACS events or simply take a break.

“We have tapped into those resources like there’s no tomorrow,” she said. “And because of those resources, a lot of our families have grown, learned and now know what they’re made of.”

While deployed to Southwest Afghanistan, where U.S. Marines fight Taliban insurgents, Dustoff crews flew nearly 4,000 hours and cared for roughly 3,000 patients, said Maj. Shane Miller, the rear detachment commander. Often, they faced small arms and rocket fire while evacuating wounded troops. Soldiers earned several awards, including five Bronze Stars, 60 Air Medals, 30 Combat Action Badges, 14 Army Commendation Medals, 10 Army Achievement Awards and one Combat Medic Badge.

A documentary crew that filmed unit crews in Afghanistan will be on-hand Aug. 4, when the company holds its official welcome home event — planned to be a fun celebration for Soldiers and families, said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Simmons, the rear detachment first sergeant.

Roughly 110 Soldiers deployed in waves from July to November 2010. Most returned between June and July, however one flight platoon will remain for several more months, Simmons said. In Landstuhl, unit personnel supported Soldiers by helping families, Simmons said.

“Seeing them reunite with family, that’s the most rewarding part,” he said.

On Sunday, Rachel McKinstry woke thinking, “He’s coming home today. I hope he doesn’t get delayed.” Her husband was deployed twice before, to Iraq, and now to Afghanistan. Waiting, especially the last few hours, is the hardest part — full of excitement and anticipation.

“It’s a ball of nerves,” she said. “You want to make sure everything is perfect.”

Inside the Landstuhl hangar, families gathered to wait. Children clutching small U.S. flags darted circles around groups of anxious mothers. Whispers passed — the bus from Ramstein was coming. Moments later, huge hangar doors parted to reveal rows of gray-clad Soldiers, tired but smiling as they marched inside. Then, the blissful command, “Dismissed!”

Children and spouses rushed forward. Soldiers knelt to pick up their children. Tears were hidden tightly in hugs. Friends shook hands and produced gifts.

When Pfc. Charles Milazzo, 24, of Denver, Colo., deployed, his roommate, Pfc. Jason McKinley, knew he’d miss his buddy.

“So, I replaced him with a cactus and named it Charles,” said McKinley, 21, of Raeford, N.C., adding that the plant received sips of beer over the past six months.

When Milazzo returned, McKinley presented him with the cactus. McKinley said he was glad to see his best friend return safely from Afghanistan. Handing over the cactus was a joyful moment.

“He can give it beer now,” McKinley said.