FORT DRUM — When bombs went off outside an airport in the capital of Afghanistan in August, communication between U.S. soldiers and their families largely halted for days, making the safe return of more than 100 this weekend even more of a relief.
About 135 soldiers with the 23rd Military Police Company returned to Fort Drum after having provided security around the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul since mid-August. They had left before the Aug. 31 deadline to leave Afghanistan, but some continued on to Kuwait or Germany. They made history as some of the last U.S. soldiers to leave Afghanistan after 20 years of war, and they returned on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Jena Blacketer was one of the first mothers to walk into the After Action Review Facility on Saturday to wait for her son, Pfc. Jeffery Blacketer, to arrive with the rest of his company. She was hours early but that didn’t seem to matter. Her leg bounced up and down as she waited.
When a Fort Drum staffer welcomed them and asked what her son’s name was, Mrs. Blacketer pronounced it loudly and almost like she refused to miss any detail in the event, highlighting how even the small things mean so much to families when the time has finally come to reunite. She was flanked by her husband, James, and other son, Jacob, one of the returning soldier’s brothers and best friends.
“From the time he was deployed, I didn’t watch the news,” Mrs. Blacketer said. “My son told me, ‘Mom, just don’t do it.’”
When at least two suicide bombs detonated outside the airport in Kabul, Mrs. Blacketer said she managed to get word that her son was OK five hours afterward, but four days went by with no communication.
“We relied on Facebook messenger to speak with him,” she said. “Then boom, nothing. There was no forewarning. We had no contact with them. I had to go to the hospital.”
They finally got to speak with him after he had left Afghanistan and landed in Germany. She said he enjoyed being in the military police before deploying, but maybe not after. Either way, she’s proud.
“It’s kind of bittersweet knowing that he was the last,” Mrs. Blacketer said. “On the other hand, I really wish he wouldn’t have been there.”
And for Pfc. Blacketer, he’s proud of how the company responded.
“We did an amazing job,” he said. “I’m just glad to be home.”
It was somewhat the same for the Conner family. Colleen Conner was there with her husband, William; daughter, Haley; and son, Peyton. They waited for the return of Sgt. Maclaine Conner, the oldest of the three kids. Her son was taking a break from the Army when he was notified of this tense deployment.
“He was on leave and had done some traveling before coming home,” said Mrs. Conner, who lives in Rochester with her family. “And then he called me on a Wednesday and said ‘They called me back.’”
There was some communication before the bombings, but Mrs. Conner, too said, it cut off after the bombings.
“It was horrible,” she said. “We just had to wait and wait. It was awful.”
Still, they made it home and both families were thrilled in the end. The soldiers marched out into the facility to a crowd of cheers. Then Brig. Gen. Lori L. Robinson addressed the soldiers before they embraced their families.
“We train here every day so we’re ready to answer our nation’s call, and several weeks ago, our nation called, and the 23rd MP company was trained and ready and went and answered that call,” she said. “It was a difficult and complex mission, but we’re extremely proud of the work that you did.”
She also celebrated all of those who volunteered to join the military after 9/11, including the men and women in the room.
“Today, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we remember all of the people that died that day and their families,” she said, “but we also celebrate all of those first responders and people who saved a lot of additional lives that day. Very similarly, today is the same way. We celebrate all who volunteered after 9/11 to serve our country and save countless lives. This group standing in front of you did exactly that.”