SPRINGFIELD — Tears of joy and relief flowed freely as a Missouri National Guard unit came home just in time for Christmas from a pioneering mission in Afghanistan.
Although technically designated as part of the 95th Aviation Support Battalion, the 47 soldiers who arrived Wednesday in Springfield are better known as the Missouri National Guard Agribusiness Development Team.
The Missouri Agribusiness Development Team was a pilot program developed through a partnership of the National Guard Bureau, the University of Missouri and the Missouri Farm Bureau.
They deployed in January with a mission of helping revive a farm sector that employs over 70 percent of the Afghan population and has been devastated by war and upheaval. Similar National Guard units have since formed in other farm states and headed for Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's cultivation of opium poppies exploded in recent years, and the Agribusiness Development Team worked to wean Afghan farmers off the illegal crop and guide them toward growing legitimate crops such as wheat.
Lt. Col. Greg Allison, commander of the team, was overwhelmed with emotion as he thanked the soldiers for putting their lives on the line in Afghanistan. He also commended them on a job well done.
"No task was too difficult for them," he told their family and friends at the ceremony at Springfield's National Guard Armory. "Their courage and resolve continued. ... They never lost focus and they remained diligent."
Maj. Gen. King Sidwell, adjutant general of the Missouri National Guard, spoke of the team's success in Afghanistan.
"What you have been doing has historic proportions," he said.
History was beside the point Wednesday for Lathrop resident Pam Barber as she tearfully embraced her son, 22-year-old Sgt. Will Allen. Barber and her husband, Brian, and a dozen other family members sported "Welcome Home Will" T-shirts.
"This is absolutely my best present ever," Pam Barber said.
"It's great to be back," said her son as he held his younger brother. "I've been waiting for this since the day I left. It's the best Christmas present ever. I couldn't ask for anything else — there's nothing else I could want."
Master Sgt. Larry Godsey's wife was on hand to greet him and planned a Christmas surprise for their children, who hadn't been told their dad was coming home.
Godsey said the work in Afghanistan was rewarding. The unit's tasks included building wells, which earned deep appreciation from Afghan villagers, he said.
"They were so proud of it, they were sleeping right next to the well to make sure animals didn't get into it," Godsey said of one such project. When the Missourians returned to inspect the well, villagers wanted to put on a feast for them, he said.
Projects in Afghanistan included water management, soil enhancement, crop cultivation and improving the delivery and marketing of goods.
Team members brought a wide variety of expertise in farming, veterinary medicine, hydrology, soil science and engineering as well as marketing.
U.S. officials believe revitalizing Afghanistan's agricultural economy while weakening the role of poppy cultivation will help stabilize the country.
"Our long-term strategy is to help make things better over there, so we're especially proud of the Missouri National Guard for being the first to do that," said Capt. Mike Seek.