GARY, Ind. (CBS) — Members of an Indiana National Guard unit returned home with heavy hearts on Wednesday, after losing six of their fellow soldiers in combat in Afghanistan.
Four of those who died are from the Chicago area. Some were killed in the blast of a roadside bomb, others died in an ambush.
CBS 2’s Mike Puccinelli was there when the 95 surviving members of the Indiana National Guard 713th Engineer Company came home.
In a hangar at Gary International Airport, hundreds gathered to welcome back the 713th engineering company. The anticipation was palpable as friends and family waited for the soldiers’ arrival.
“Every day I’d wake up and say ‘Is it the day? Is it the day? Is it the day?’” And today is here. I’ve been counting down the hours,” said Tina Huppenthal, one of the Naitonal Guard mothers at the hangar in Gary.
Bob Leonhardt was there too, even though he knew his son Brian wouldn’t be on the plane.
“My son didn’t make it, but I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” he said. “I know Brian’s up there right now. He’s happy that his brothers are home safe.”
Brian Leonhardt was one of six members of the unit killed in Afghanistan.
Kelly Goebel’s son survived the yearlong tour, but her heart was with the families of those whose sons did not.
“I’m grateful and blessed, but I feel guilty for the moms that their children aren’t coming back. That hurts me,” she said.
But the sorrow of loss, at least for a brief while, was replaced with the joy of reunion.
When the door of the hangar was opened, the survivors marched in, and were quickly dismissed into the arms of their loved ones.
Amid all the unrestrained joy of homecoming reunions, Bob Leonhardt searched for his son’s commanding officer. After several minutes of looking, he found Capt. Cecil Pendleton III.
“I’m Brian Leonhardt’s dad. It is an honor and a pleasure to meet you, sir,” Leonhardt said through sobs, giving Pendleton a hug.
Two strangers now linked by loss were strangers no more.
“I absolutely could not wait for your guys to come home, so that I could come up and shake your hand,” he told Pendleton. “This means so much to me.”
Before dismissing his unit, Pendleton dramatically announced that six members of the unit were on overwatch, meaning the six who died are watching over their comrades from above.