Montana Guard soldiers arrive home after Afghan deployment

Billings Gazette

by Carmen Irish

BILLINGS – The moment she saw him step off the plane Saturday, Bailey O’Connor ran as fast as she could toward Sgt. Corey Shafer through a crowd of hundreds of people that were just as eager to embrace their loved ones returning home from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.

Shafer was one of 113 soldiers in the Montana Army National Guard’s 484th Military Police Company who returned home shortly before 11:30 a.m. at Logan International Airport in a chartered jet.

O’Connor ran into Shafer’s arms and buried her face in his shoulder. She has been waiting for this day for nearly a year, she said. What was soon to come, however, would come as a surprise.

The 24-year-old soldier scooped O’Connor into his arms. It was a moment the sergeant said he has been planning for more than a year.

Soon after his tight grip released, he knelt down on one knee, reached into his uniform pocket and took out a little white box. Their families stood nearby, full of excitement for the marriage proposal that was soon to come.

“Bailey, you are amazing and have been so supportive,” Shafer said to his girlfriend of three years. “I have only one question. Will you spend the rest of your life with me?”

Her reaction said yes. “I had no idea he would propose,” O’Connor, 22, said. “I felt like we were the only ones here.”

But they were not alone. Hundreds of people gathered for the long-awaited reunion with the returning soldiers.

The 484th mission, under the command of Capt. Fredrick Terry, has provided support and training to Afghan national police near Kandahar since the beginning of June. Prior to that, the unit shipped out in April for final training in Fort Bliss, Texas.

They returned to American soil in Fort Bliss on March 7, where they completed their demobilization process before returning home to Montana.

The unit’s members come from across Montana. Of those, 29 soldiers call Billings home, Maj. Tim Crowe, spokesman for the Montana National Guard, said. Four soldiers in the unit come from other states, two have remained in Texas and will return in the coming week, and one soldier is visiting his ailing grandfather before his return home.

“The sacrifices these men and women make are incredible,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. said Saturday afternoon. “They have a very difficult and dangerous job training military police, and have cleared major pathways. Getting them home and out of harm’s way is a big deal to their families and to our country.”

Sgt. Katie Hornung’s family, of Billings, couldn’t agree more. Her husband, Tim Hornung, and their two 10-year-old twin sons, Andrew and Caleb, surrounded her in a group hug for several minutes.

“It’s a great relief to have her home,” her husband, Tim Hornung, said. “We couldn’t be happier.”

“It feels unbelievable to be back,” 34-year-old Katie Hornung said as she wiped tears from her cheeks. “I’ve dreamt of this moment every night. All I want to do is love on my family.”

Spc. Brady Gray, 20, said the moment was surreal. “There have been many ups and downs, but overall it was a great experience,” Gray said. “It’s just good to be back.”

Her mother, Robin Gray, of Cut Bank, was at the airport to meet her.

“It’s been a very long year with many sleepless nights,” Robin Gray said. “I didn’t want her to enlist, but I also didn’t want to hold her back from what was in her heart. I’m glad she’s home safe, and I couldn’t be prouder.”

Their arrival home means the soldiers will return to their civilian lives and jobs, Crowe said. “They will also continue being Guardsmen on the weekend and during annual training.”

For Shafer, the third-tour homecoming may not be his last, he said. He recently re-enlisted for another six years with the Guard.

He and his bride-to-be said they hope to marry in September once O’Connor’s brother, Cody O’Connor, 19, returns home from Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division based out of Fort Campbell, Ky. He will stand as best man, Shafer said.

“This has been, by far, the best homecoming,” Shafer said. “I had something great to look forward to, and now, we together have so much to look forward to.”

Tester said the unit has done an outstanding job. “Their representation of Montana makes us all very proud.”