By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD - As families and friends waited Tuesday for the last of the 20th Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade to return from a year-long deployment to Afghanistan, three women passed the time as they have every Friday night since their husbands left: together.
Their weekly ritual, which involved eating, card games and, on occasion, consumption of liquid courage, offered structure during an uncertain time, said 28-year-old Rachel Hester, whose husband, Spc. James Hester, 3rd Platoon, 510th Clearance Company, was returning from his first deployment.
"There's a lot of instability (during a deployment)," she said. "You never know what to expect."
Scheduled get-togethers with friends in the same situation provide "some semblance of normalcy," she said.
"It was a little therapy session," said Caitlin Kowalski, 15, whose mother, Sara Kowalski, hosted many Friday night events.
"I'm closer to them than people I've known for 20 years," said Sara, referring to Hester and other 3rd Platoon wives. "The experience bonds you in no way that you can explain."
"I see a bus!" said Melanie Gardiner, 24, the third Friday night regular, as three white buses rolled down Battalion Avenue, stopping one behind the other in front of Cameron Field, the last obstacle between the soldiers and home.
The roughly 100 Lumberjacks who returned Tuesday belonged to the battalion's Headquarters and Headquarters Company and its 510th Clearance Company. The rest of the battalion left the Kandahar region of Afghanistan on two earlier flights, arriving at Fort Hood on Saturday and Monday.
The crowd roared as the buses pulled away, revealing the Lumberjacks advancing in formation. Excitement crescendoed as the soldiers stopped in the middle of the parade field, and John Footman, Texas commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, saluted battalion forward commander Lt. Col. Peter Andrysiak.
A prayer was offered, and rear detachment brigade commander Maj. Michael Payne congratulated the battalion on having cleared 250 improvised explosive devices from Afghanistan's roadways.
Then, in a surprise twist on an old tradition, Payne asked battalion executive officer Maj. Jason Railsback to step out and accept the first kiss - from Andrysiak's chocolate lab, Jackson.
Following the slippery smooch, Andrysiak's wife, Casey, explained that after more traditional first kisses at the previous homecomings, "It was time for a little levity."
Railsback knows the dog, she said, and thought Jackson would be a willing surrogate for Railsback's wife, Maj. Greta Railsback, who is currently deployed to Iraq with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
"It's OK, I love the dog," Railsback said, smiling. "It made me happy."
As the rest of the soldiers met their families, Sara Kowalski, 34, and her three children, Caitlin, Celsie, 7, and Cyler, 5, made their way to Spc. Mark Kowalski, 31, encircling him.
He enlisted just two years ago, Sara, said, but has handled the adjustment to Army life and his first deployment well.
It felt great to be back at home, Mark said, beaming, adding that the kids looked a little bigger since the last time he saw them during his mid-tour leave months ago.
The battalion's senior noncommissioned officer, Command Sgt. Maj. Douglas Gault, returned from Afghanistan Saturday, but attended the battalion's final homecoming, partly to honor to the 13 soldiers affiliated with the 20th Engineers who died in action.
Spiritually, he said, "We leave nobody behind."
Contact Colleen Flaherty at email@example.com or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHfeatures.