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Welcome home: JBLM aviation brigade starts to return from Afghanistan

Soldiers from what is expected to be the last Joint Base Lewis-McChord combat brigade to deploy to Afghanistan in large numbers are starting to come home.

Troops from the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade began arriving at JBLM over the weekend. About 100 more returned Wednesday morning.

One of them was Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Frye, 35, of Spanaway, a veteran of four deployments to war zones. He’s looking forward to spending time with his wife and four kids, though they don’t have any plans yet.

“It’s exciting,” he said.

It was April when about 1,200 local soldiers from the aviation brigade hit the ground in Afghanistan for what was scheduled to be a nine-month assignment. Some of them got word last month that they’d come home early, while others likely will be in Afghanistan for the full time.

The U.S. is preparing to withdraw almost all of its forces from Afghanistan this year. Up to 9,800 could remain there, according to a plan President Barack Obama outlined earlier this year, but that’s dependent on the Afghan government signing a status of forces agreement.

In 2012, JBLM sent more than 12,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, including all three of its Stryker brigades. Now JBLM mostly is sending Special Operations units or combat support troops.

The aviation brigade used its helicopter crews to protect ground troops, evacuate the wounded and help close down forward bases as the Army draws down its presence in Afghanistan after 13 years of war.

The soldiers who came home Wednesday served in the brigade’s support battalion. They worked out of Kandahar Air Field maintaining helicopters and making sure the Army had the fuel and equipment it needed to keep them in the air.

“It was good. We carried out our mission, we did our job, and that was it,” said Spc. Xavier Villanueva, 23.

His last deployment was a 15-month tour in Iraq through 2011, when the U.S. was withdrawing its ground forces from that war. This time, he spent a comparatively short six months in Afghanistan because of his unit’s expedited homecoming.

Villanueva has a 9-month-old son. They’ll be getting reacquainted before the soldier pays a visit to his extended family in Houston. In the meantime, he’s planning to “just enjoy being in the states.”

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