URBANA — It's been nearly four years and four months since Illinois Army National Guard soldier Michael Freed returned to his Roberts home after a year-long tour in Afghanistan.
While some of the sights, smells and sounds of war have faded from his memory, many still linger. And some things — like the faces of fellow soldiers who were killed during the deployment — the Loda native never wants to forget.
Now a first sergeant with the unit based in Urbana, Freed politely but firmly declined to talk about the buddies he lost.
But they, along with the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team's other casualties, were on the minds of members — both active and retired — during a special ceremony Sunday morning at the Urbana armory. The brigade was presented with a streamer from the National Guard's Center of Military History for its service in Afghanistan during "Operation Enduring Freedom" in 2008-09.
As he watched the emerald, scarlet, black, white and blue-striped streamer being added to the brigade's flag, retired Brig. Gen. Steven Huber thought back to his troops' efforts and felt an enormous sense of pride. Huber, of Byron, served as commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix VIII and led the 7,300-person task force that trained and mentored the Afghan national army and police forces.
"This brigade performed tremendously well with all of the challenges they faced," recalled Huber, who retired on Nov. 9, and is now a contract trainer for the Illinois National Guard. "They took on a mission that caused them to be spread out all over the country and work in many different capacities in very austere conditions. I'm honestly proud of each and every one of them."
But, Huber said, he also felt a deep sense of sorrow for the casualties — those who went home with physical and emotional wounds, and those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Forty-three, including 18 from Illinois, were killed.
Huber still remembers their names and faces and thinks about their loss "pretty much every day."
Three were part of an advance team who were killed before the brigade's arrival. Sgt. Joshua Harris and Staff Sgt. Jason Vazquez were killed by a roadside bomb in September 2008. Staff Kevin D. Greico was killed in October when a suicide bomber detonated explosives at a police station. A few months later, First Lt. Jared Southworth, Staff Sgt. Jason Burkholder and their Afghan interpreter, Jawid Ahmed, were killed by a roadside bomb.
"The first ones are always the ones that hit you the hardest. They don't get any easier," Huber said quietly, as he perused their names on a memorial plaque at the armory. An identical plaque was left behind in Afghanistan.
Each loss shocked him into reality and made Huber think constantly about the protection, safety and well-being of his soldiers.
"And what we can do better," said Huber, who wrote letters home to the families, informing them of the deaths, and later visited them in person.
"We remain in contact with all of them to this day," he said, adding that some families attend military functions and keep in touch via Facebook. "There's a bond between them. There's sadness and grief, but they also know that they're part of the 33rd, and we embrace them as family members."
Freed, who comes from a long line of farmers and military service members, was 21 when he joined the guard 26 years ago "for discipline and to give back." The 2008-09 deployment was his third since Sept. 11, 2001 and his second to Afghanistan.
"You go as a unit, and you come back as a family," Freed said.
"It's misery," he said. Not just being in a dangerous environment and life-or-death situations, but also being half a world away from family for a long stretch of time.
"You're miserable together because you're all missing your family," said Huber, who left behind his wife Susan, their two daughters and a stepdaughter. "Some guys are doing great, and some aren't. Each month, it switches. That's why we're family. Everyone can lean on each other."
During his first tour in Afghanistan in 2004-05, Freed was part of a personal security detachment for senior officers and senior enlisted officers. He provided supplies and services to outlying forward operating bases, both of which took him all over the country.
On his second tour, he performed hazardous materials certification for ammunition and issued equipment. The memory of having to gather up pictures of a soldier's loved ones and letters from home is still painful. Freed packed them into small plastic footlockers, which were then shipped to Walter Reed medical center or the army's mortuary affairs.
"When the family gets that box, you want everything to be neat and clean and cared for," said Freed said.
While he feels lucky to have come home, Freed said the transition back to civilian life can be tough. Here, you have to remember to carry money with you, but not your loaded weapon.
"You have to learn to turn off the clock and relax," said Freed, who needed a few months to readjust. "You've also got to relearn your family. Hopefully, you can survive that."
Freed now works for the Illinois Department of Transportation in Gibson City. Like other combat soldiers, he found it difficult to talk about his experiences with people who haven't been to war. And though members of his unit scattered across the state or farther away upon their return home, they still keep in touch.
"You see my phone," Freed said, patting the front pocket of his green-and-beige military jacket. "It's full of rank from top to bottom. It's that camaraderie. It's probably why people stay as long as they do because of the good friends they have in the guard."
Members of the 33rd Infantry Brigade were officially recognized Sunday for their role during the war in Afghanistan. Among the ways they helped:
Destroyed 11.2 tons of poppy seeds
Built 12 medical clinics and 15 schools
Dug 135 wells
Provided 2.7 million pounds of humanitarian supplies