The 737 was coming out of the sky and already a few women and children were pressing into the fence at Mustang Aviation at Pierre Regional Airport, watching, waiting, for the South Dakota National Guard soldiers to finally get home.
“It’s about (Darned) Time,” read one sign held by a woman at the chain-link fence, of the Guard unit that has been gone 11 months on duty in the war-torn Middle East. Originally deployed for nine months, it turned into an 11-month call of duty.
“We’re not even supposed to be here,” said Kari Bauman with a smile about their airport run. But she was there with her sons, Izaak, 10, and Eli, 5, and they all were straining to see if they could see Capt. Richard Bauman among the 69 who trooped off the Seattle Pacific jet that brought them up from Texas. The unit has been at Fort Hood since June 6, a time for demobilization and more germane now in the new world of the COVID-19 pandemic, a quarantine.
The National Guard officials had an organized plan to bring the returning troops straight from the jet to buses and through the city to Riggs High School before releasing them to the arms of their loved ones.
However, these dozen or more loved ones came early, driving out to the Pierre Regional Airport. The knew they wouldn’t get up close yet to their loved ones. But almost like rock star fans pressing on a fence, they still wanted to see from afar their first touch-down in South Dakota.
“Now, they’re really home, finally” exclaimed one woman, making clear it made all the difference to see the wheels of the plane stop turning and the door open.
It meant Kari Bauman and her sons had to wave a quick goodbye to Capt. Bauman even before they could greet him in style, waving to the two buses filled with Guard soldiers that pulled away from the airfield.
Then, she and the boys jumped into their SUV and got in the line that was a kind of parade including a motorcycle escort and police cars that wound its way down Airport Road/Fourth Street, a turn on to the truck route, then down Harrison Avenue and a jog over to Riggs High School where finally they could get close enough to hug their soldiers.
The soldiers came piling out of the two buses as loved ones searched for theirs.
Kari Bauman guided her boys until they spotted their father.
“It’s really good to be home,” Capt. Bauman told the Capital Journal after pressing his family close for a few minutes. “It smells nicer; everything’s nicer. I can’t wait to get a beer. And a steak.”
He had gifts for Izaak and Eli. Kari seemed like she didn’t want to let go.
This was Bauman’s fourth overseas deployment with the National Guard.
“His first as a father,” Kari said. “His second as a husband.”
She’s an insurance agent in Pierre.
He’s the commander of the headquarters company for the 152nd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion.
It’s been 11 months since he and the other 68 in the unit have seen their loved ones here up close and personal.
It got hairy at times over there, said Command Maj. Sgt. Eric Jennings.
The unit’s job was logistics: Making sure other U.S. and Iraqi units received the supplies and equipment they were suppose to have, Jennings said. It meant supplying trucks to Iraqi “trusted agents,” so that Iraqis could be taught to operate them.
The members of the 152nd carried weapons, 9 mm pistols and M4 rifles, and had 500 other soldiers under their command, Jennings said.
When conditions got dicey, “they had to wear their body armor,” Jennings said.
But no one in the unit got hurt, he said.
The unit spent short stints in Syria and Jordan and Kuwait, too, Jennings said.
The 152nd is a storied battalion. In 2018, it received the Walter T. Kerwin Jr. Award in a ceremony in Washington, named “the most outstanding “ Guard battalion in the nation battalion in the country for its “excellence in operational planning, execution of training and maintaining high levels of readiness,” Lt. Col. Timothy Schlotterback, the 152nd’s commander, said in 2018 when the award was presented.
Gov. Kristi Noem spoke to the unit in the theater at Riggs High in Pierre, as did Maj. Gen. Jeff Marlette, adjutant general for the South Dakota National Guard.
This was the second mobilization of the 152nd CSSB since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a Guard spokesman told the Capital Journal. Its first deployment was in 2013 to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.