This story was originally published in Newsday on Jan. 8, 2009.
IN THE EARLY MONTHS of 2008, as he prepared to lead members of the Bay Shore-based "Fighting 69th" into battle in Afghanistan, Company Cmdr. Lt. Peter Fluker spoke with the parents, wives, siblings and friends of his soldiers, promising to do all he could to bring them back safe.
Yesterday, amid the euphoria that filled the Bay Shore armory at the unit's homecoming, Fluker said a tension that had weighed on him had finally lifted. He had lived up to his promise.
"In the deadliest year of the campaign in Afghanistan, we all came home alive," said Fluker, a Bedford-Stuyvesant father of eight children, who at 36 years old is younger than several of his subordinates. "It was stressful. Even though some of them are older than I am, they are my kids. I was responsible for them."
After 10 months away in the badlands of Afghanistan, 83 members of the New York Army National Guard's 69th Infantry Regiment returned home to an emotional greeting by family, friends and fellow soldiers, marking an end to the unit's deployment to Afghanistan.
Sgt. John O'Dougherty of Valley Stream cradled a 4 1/2-month-old child to his chest as his wife purred "I missed you" into her husband's ear.
"I finally meet my grandson," O'Dougherty said as the child bawled.
Nearby, Spc. Ricardo Farquharson, 32, an East Meadow electronics engineer, entwined himself with his wife, Magda.
He said he had no desire for a welcome-home dinner, nor a night on the town, nor a visit with the in-laws. He just wanted to take her home.
"I just want to hold her," he said. "I don't want to let her go."
The 69th had suffered heavy casualties during a 2004-2005 deployment to Iraq, when 19 were killed and scores wounded.
Their latest deployment - the troops left for Afghanistan in late March, after three months of training at Ft. Bragg, S.C. - spanned a period in which violence along the Pakistan border surged to its highest level since the first days after American troops landed there in 2001.
"They did extremely well," said Fluker, moments after pinning a Purple Heart medal on the chest of Spc. Seamus Byrne, a Kings Park resident who sustained minor injuries during a bomb attack while patrolling in Afghanistan.
But their safe return does not mean their work is done, say unit leaders, spouses and many of the soldiers.
Ahead lies the task of reintegrating into marriages, families and workplaces, which typically exacts a toll on soldiers hardened by the battlefield's anxiety and violence, and on family members who have learned to get by without them.
An April report by the Rand Corp. said one in five of personnel serving in Iraq or Afghanistan eventually suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, and that few seek treatment for fear that it could harm their careers.
"Statistics say as many as one-third of these guys who just got off the bus will suffer PTSD or TBI," said Tom Ronayne, director of Suffolk County's Veterans Service Agency. "Now the heavy lifting falls on us."
Jonathan Rothwell, 29, a former member of the regiment who left the unit last April and who served in Iraq in 2004- 2005, said he expects many of the soldiers will experience various stresses now that they have come home.
The Babylon resident said he gets psychological counseling once a week at the Babylon Veterans Center to help him cope with postwar anxieties.
"You think about the war every day and dream about it every night," said Rothwell, who was at the armory to await the return of Mark Dudenhoffer, a fellow Humvee turret gunner and his best friend.
"Everything changes: sleep habits, relationships, work, dealing with authority," Rothwell said. "These guys were the authority and now they are civilians again. It's not an easy transition."
The Fighting 69th
HOME BASE The fabled New York-based Army National Guard regiment is made up of roughly 650 volunteers from the five boroughs of New York City and from Long Island. The Long Island companies are posted at armories in Bay Shore and Huntington.
HISTORY The unit originated in the 1840s, when its ranks were filled largely by Irish immigrants. The regiment served in four wars and 19 campaigns, including the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the war in Iraq. According to legend, Gen. Robert E. Lee gave the regiment its nickname, the Fighting 69th.
CASUALTIES Nineteen of its members were killed in fighting in Iraq, where it was deployed in 2004. The unit was sent to Afghanistan in March, and returned without any loss of life.