SPEARFISH | "This is not a typical deployment. This is not a typical unit," Capt. Allen Godsell of Sturgis told the crowd welcoming home the soldiers of the 842nd Engineer Company Thursday afternoon.
Pride in the voice of the unit's commanding officer was echoed in comments from speakers welcoming the unit home to the Northern Hills.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Maj. Gen. Timothy Reisch, the South Dakota National Guard's adjutant general, led the welcome-home ceremony for the unit that spent a year building roads and moving earth in Afghanistan.
The first to officially say welcome home to the 160 men and women in the 842nd came from mayors of the unit's armories in Spearfish, Belle Fourche and Sturgis.
Sen. John Thune and Rep. Kristi Noem welcomed the unit home while publicly recognizing the difficulties it had undergone while serving overseas.
Noem noted there were 11 bronze stars awarded to soldiers in the unit.
The soldiers now have a "new normal" to adjust to, she said.
Thune said the total of 247 medals awarded the soldiers is a tribute to them as "individuals, their families and their state."
Reisch said he was pleased to watch the soldiers and their families at the noon picnic and the afternoon welcoming ceremonies.
"I see a lot of smiling faces here and a lot of happy families," he said.
Reisch recommended to the soldiers and their families that they need to transition slowly back into a regular lifestyle.
The general said the National Guard is offering more services to help returning soldiers with the transition back to life in western South Dakota.
"There are a lot of employers who are ready to hire a veteran," he said. "We can help them out."
Gov. Daugaard noted that 113 of the soldiers were on their first deployment, and 47 were on their second, third or fourth overseas deployment.
"That's service and that's courage," he said.
The governor said the unit worked at 58 different locations, had 123 named missions and 588 other missions and finished 275 miles of roadwork with an estimated value of $21 million.
The soldiers also traveled 16,000 convoy miles, the equivalent of crossing South Dakota 40 times, according to the governor.
Godsell told families and friends that the care packages, cards and banners they received played a significant role in maintaining the unit's morale.
"The impact of these efforts cannot be overestimated," he said.
He outlined the unit's mission of building roads, forward bases — and most of all, teaching Afghan Army engineers how to use and care for their equipment.
When the official welcome ended, soldiers hopped into convertibles and pickups for parades through Spearfish, Belle Fourche, Whitewood and Sturgis to crowds lining the streets to wave and, more than once, call out a simple, “Thanks!”