Bob Leonhardt, of Crown Point, Ind., left, meets with Cpt. Cecil Pendleton during a welcome home ceremony Sept. 26 for members of the Indiana National Guard 713th Engineer Company in Gary, Ind. Leonhardt's son, Brian, was one of six unit members killed while serving a year-long deployment in Afghanistan. (Andy Lavalley / The Post-Tribune via AP)
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Hayley Leonard, 3, of Valparaiso, Ind., manages to hold a sign Sept. 26 while getting a hug from her dad, Staff Sgt. Kyle Leonard, during a welcome home ceremony for members of the 713th Engineer Company in Gary, Ind. (Andy Lavalley / The Post-Tribune via AP)
GARY, Ind. — An Indiana National Guard unit that lost six of its members during an almost yearlong deployment in Afghanistan returned to Indiana Wednesday in a tearful, hug-filled reunion with friends and family.
More than 80 members of the Valparaiso-based 713th Engineer Company were greeted by about 300 relatives and friends when they arrived at the Gary Army Aviation Support Facility.
The hangar erupted in cheers as the door rose to reveal the returning soldiers.
"It's overwhelming, it's great," Capt. Cecil Pendleton III told http://posttrib.suntimes.com/15392140-537/indiana-national-guard-unit-returns-from-deadly-tour-in-afghanistan.html">the Post-Tribune. "... It's been a long year."
"It didn't feel real until I had him in my arms," said his wife, Rachel Pendleton. "I'm so happy for all the families. They went through a lot in Afghanistan, and we went through a lot at home."
The six deaths made the deployment the most deadly for a unit in the history of the Indiana National Guard.
Four died Jan. 5 when their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device: Spc. Robert J. Tauteris, Jr., 44, of Hamlet; Staff Sgt. Jonathan M. Metzger, of Indianapolis; Spc. Brian J. Leonhardt, 21, of Merrillville; and Spc. Christopher Patterson, 20, of Aurora, Ill.
Pfc. Douglas Rachowicz, 30, of Hammond, was the lone survivor of the attack. He was on hand at the ceremony, greeting many fellow soldiers with hugs.
On July 16, Spc. Sergio E. Perez Jr., 21, of Crown Point and Spc. Nicholas A. Taylor, 20, of Berne were killed by small arms fire during an ambush.
The company's mission involved patrolling roads and clearing away roadside bombs in Kandahar Province for 10 1/2 months.
Portage resident Song Hee Melendez said her 2-year-old daughter, Talia, was impatient for her father's return, asking if he was home from work every day.
"She was so excited in the car ride here, saying, ‘I love my daddy,'" Melendez said.
Her husband, Jeffrey Melendez, said he was happy to be home.
"I don't think it's really hit me yet," he said.
But the memory of those lost also was fresh on the minds of soldiers such as Sgt. Joshua Willette of Highland.
"I'm really happy and this is nice, but at the same time it's sad because of the guys we lost," Willette said