25th Combat Aviation Brigade celebrates homecoming
Hundreds of relatives and friends were on hand Thursday at Wheeler Army Air Field as 2,500 soldiers with the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade celebrated their homecoming with a redeployment ceremony.
After spending the past year in southern Afghanistan, unit commander Col. Frank Tate said the brigade had left its mark on what has become America's longest-running war.
"Army aviation has rediscovered its purpose," said Tate, "And it is, as we say, 'Lele makou no na puali,' to fly for the troops; to take care of the soldier on the ground."
During the 12-month deployment, pilots and crews with the chopper brigade logged 139,000 flight hours, 35,000 more than the previous unit. Most of the soldiers deployed to Afghanistan worked 12-hour days, seven days a week.
"The mission that we went over to do, we went ahead and completed it safely and the majority of our whole unit came back home," said Sgt. Jesus Cuellar. "I think that we did pretty good."
The brigade suffered eight combat deaths in two separate incidents involving Blackhawk helicopters. On April 19 of last year, a four-man crew was killed after their chopper went down in bad weather in Helmand Province.
Four months later, on Aug. 16, seven Americans and four Afghans died when their Blackhawk was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade near Kandahar. The chopper was supporting a ground assault at the time, and four of the soldiers who were killed were assigned to the 25th CAB.
Before the redeployment ceremony began on the flight-line at Wheeler, a service was held for the fallen men of the brigade. Eight palm trees were planted to honor each soldier who was killed during the deployment.
"Every single one of them were great men, and we loved every one of them," said Tate. "They were the kind of folks you want to serve with, (and) have on your left and your right."
Gov. Neil Abercrombie told the soldiers they had carried forward the proud tradition of the unit, which was activated at Schofield Barracks on Feb. 1, 1957, as the 25th Aviation Company.
"You are the representatives of a legacy of honor and service seldom if ever matched," said the governor. "The people of Hawaii know this, and honor it."
With President Barack Obama planning to draw down U.S. forces in a matter of months, there's nothing on the horizon that would signal the 25th CAB's return to Afghanistan. Tate said he's optimistic about the Afghan force left behind in the country's southern provinces where his soldiers operated.
"I can tell you that down south, the (Afghan) army is strong enough that they absolutely can hold," said Tate. "I was very impressed with how they did, and how hard-working they were."
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