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Leaving three toddlers and his wife for a year in Afghanistan was the hardest thing Brady Blake ever did.
Now Blake, who returned home on a frosty Thursday morning with 150 other Utah National Guard soldiers, faces a challenge: "Getting to know these guys again," he said, gesturing to his 4-year-old twins, Addison and Aiden, and his 2-year-old, Ashtynn.
He was gone, as he put it, "one-quarter of their lives and one-half of hers."
And it was no easy year for his wife, Cortney Blake. Aiden has cerebral palsy and cystic fibrosis and was hospitalized five times while his dad was away. Her daughters, Cortney Blake said, were often farmed out to family and friends.
The hardest part for her? "Not having another set of hands!"
Blake and 360 other members of the 1st Battalion, 211th Aviation unit left Jan. 16 last year, taking 18 AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters. Spread throughout Afghanistan, they conducted aerial route reconnaissance and provided armed escorts for U.S. and coalition aircraft. Those who are not pilots are mechanics, refuelers and other support workers.
Some members of the unit have been trickling home in recent months, and on Sunday, another 150 soldiers will return on another chartered flight, said Lt. Col. Hank McIntire, Guard spokesman.
The soldiers who arrived Thursday returned from overseas several days ago and were at Fort Hood, Texas, for processing. They came on two chartered Southwest Air jets, about an hour apart.
There were no deaths or serious injuries among the 1st Battalion 211th, McIntire said.
"We're thrilled everyone is coming home. And now the real work begins," he said.
The Guard offers returning soldiers financial, relationship and job counseling because it can be a stressful time, he said. "The deployment part seems like the tough part, but sometimes reintegrating into family and home is tougher."
Tears and smiles abounded at the Utah National Guard Base where the chartered flights arrived. The rock band that is part of the Guard's 23rd Army band performed pop tunes and families ate bagels and fruit as they awaited their soldiers' arrivals.
Children waved flags and hoisted signs welcoming home their parents, aunts and uncles.
After the second jet arrived, men in a family originally from Hawaii stripped off their shirts to do a haka warrior chant, a Maori tradition, for soldiers Joemaka Kaaihue and Masami Kaaihue, uncle and nephew.
Some two dozen members of their family, which lives in Utah County, came for the reunion, draping leis over the returned soldiers' shoulders.
Nikolai Wedekind, an Apache pilot, had one thing on his mind: meeting up with friends at the Red Iguana for mole "and a really big margarita."
"It's like Christmas morning!" Natalie Novosel said as she and her three children waited for her husband, Joseph Novosel.
"I'm super excited," said 11-year-old Malachi Novosel. "He better give me a hug."
Some 130 soldiers from the Guard's 624th Engineer Company remain in Afghanistan and are due to return home in the spring. Another 300 to 400 soldiers from engineering and artillery units will deploy in the spring to Afghanistan and Kosovo, McIntire said.