MANCHESTER -- It's hard to know when Ava Lavoie, 5, hugged her dad, Sgt. Ryan Lavoie of Gorham, hardest -- last January just before he deployed to the Middle East, or on Friday just after he returned home.
"I don't think she's going to let go any time soon," said Theresa Marchand, Lavoie's mother, of North Stratford. "I don't blame her. He's been gone a long time."
Sgt. Lavoie and roughly 120 other citizen-soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 197th Field Artillery Regiment of the New Hampshire Army National Guard returned home from an undisclosed location in the Middle East to reunite with family members in the New Hampshire National Guard Armory in Manchester. The 369-member unit deployed overseas last January to support Operation Spartan Shield, an ongoing U.S. Army training mission in the Central Command area of operations.
Soldiers from the 197th have been training with coalition forces throughout the year, including time with field artillery units from Kuwait and Jordan. The Guardsmen trained on how to operate the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS).
The deployment marked the first time a National Guard field artillery battalion was activated to support Spartan Shield. In 2010, they deployed to Kuwait in support of Operation New Dawn, and it was one of just a few National Guard units to support combat operations in the Vietnam War.
Friday's homecoming actually included about a third of the 370 soldiers from the 197th, which deployed in February. A third returned just prior to Christmas last month, with another 100 or so scheduled to return to Manchester during the predawn hours today.
The entire battalion returned to the United States about two weeks ago, and has been going through "outprocessing" at Fort Bliss in Texas.
Three charter buses took the group from the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport to the armory, where a giant American flag hung from two Manchester Fire Department ladder trucks.
"It's been amazing, but a long year," said Sgt. Jonathan Hayes. "It's good to be home,"
Lt. Col. John LeBlanc, former commander of the 3rd Battalion, 197th Field Artillery, said the mission the unit conducted while deployed was an important one.
"This battalion here is a rocket battalion, and they helped train United Arab Emirates battalions, providing training on the system," said Lt. Col. LeBlanc. "It goes back to the whole strategic concept that we can't do it all ourselves. We train them up and make sure they are up to speed on the systems and its capabilities, and make sure they are able to do what they need to do in a fight so we don't have to do it. They were in the theater for about nine months, and the whole deployment was about a year long."
Staff Sgt. Paul Hyson of Sanbornton gave big hugs to daughters Sarah, 13, Arianna, 7, Olivia, 10, and his wife Dorene. He said the last few hours before being reunited with them were the toughest.
"Lots of anxiety," said Hyson. "Sick to the stomach, the same feeling as before a big football game. I haven't seen them for so long. They get so big."
Emma Smith of York, Maine, proudly handed her husband Caleb their daughter Kate, 2, as he approached in fatigues with arms open wide.
"We've missed him," said Smith.
Watching little Ava hug her dad, mom Ashley Lavoie said one word summed up his deployment perfectly.
"Long," said Lavoie.