Hundreds on hand to welcome Talladega soldiers
by Shane Dunaway
TALLADEGA — More than 300 soldiers from the Alabama Army National Guard’s 1/167th Infantry Battalion received a warm welcome at their homecoming ceremony at the SPEED Dome at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame Monday.

An estimated 500 family members, friends and fellow soldiers attended the homecoming. Volunteers from the American Red Cross gave bottles of water to the visitors as they entered the building and Jim ‘N Nicks Barbecue provided food for the guests while they patiently awaited the soldiers’ arrival.

The soldiers from Company E in Talladega and Company F in Oxford returned from a nearly 10-month deployment, where the units conducted security force missions in support of the National Training Mission–Afghanistan.

The two companies deployed with Companies A-D, from Valley, Pelham, Cullman and Sylacauga, respectively, totaling more than 600 soldiers sent to support Operation Enduring Freedom.

According to U.S. Army Lt. Col. J.R. Bass, 1/167th Infantry Battalion commander, the soldiers completed more than 12,000 security missions, and transported and protected the trainers and advisors to the Afghan National Security Forces.

“Our soldiers sustained very minor injuries during the deployment,” Bass said. “All passengers transported by our soldiers were delivered safely to their destinations. There were no casualties among those we were sent to protect.”

U.S. Army Specialist John Noles is a combat medic in Company E who treated injuries within the unit.

“This is the greatest blessing I’ve had — not just seeing myself here, but to be the medic who made sure I’ve gotten all my guys home well, safe and healthy,” Noles said. “I take my job very seriously and I have an attentive eye. These guys don’t complain and it’s my job to see if they’re hurt, not just wait for them to say something, because they won’t. They’ll sit there on a broken leg and not say anything.”

Noles said he missed being away from his church, but not quite as much as he missed his family.

“Being away from my family is the biggest challenge for me,” Noles said. “Not being able to have as much contact with them and not having the small things like taking my son to school, being there for doctor’s visits or preventing them.”

Noles’ stepfather, Johnny Wilkes, a Black Hawk training instructor at Fort Rucker, and his mother, Martha Jean Wilkes, a therapist, greeted him after the soldiers were officially dismissed.

Johnny Wilkes recounted a story from Noles’ deployment experience he found to be very telling of just how small the world can be.

“He texted me one day and told me he had gotten on a Black Hawk helicopter,” Wilkes said. “As he got onboard, he told the pilot that I was a trainer. The pilot asked him what flight and he told him ‘Stingray.’ The pilot told him I was his trainer.

“I train the guys who are over there flying the Black Hawks and he’s riding in the back as a combat medic. It’s an amazing thing.”

Noles’ mother commended her son and the unit for all the hard work and sacrifices, but she admitted how tough it was to be the mother of a soldier.

“Every time you hear the stories of a helicopter blowing up, an (improvised explosive device) attack or an Afghan insurgent who broke through the ranks and killed people, you take these into your heart, you learn to pray and take a stand in your beliefs and your faith,” she said. “Our faith has been very important to us and that’s one of the things we can do is pray for these soldiers’ safe return.”

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© 2013