Local National Guard troops return home from Iraq

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 30, 2011

By Elizabeth Cook
Banners and flags at the entrance to Eagle Heights, Tim Hopper’s neighborhood, told the story Thursday.
“Welcome home, Chief”
“We are so proud”
“Army strong, Hooha”
“I love a solder; my hero, my husband; CW4 Tim Hopper”
Hopper, commander of a Black Hawk helicopter unit for the Army National Guard in Salisbury, was returning home four months short of a one-year deployment to Iraq as U.S. troops pull out.
Similar scenes are playing out for dozens of families here as all Salisbury-based soldiers of Company C, 1st Battalion, 131st Aviation Regiment, have either returned to their homes or will do so by New Year’s Day.
“It feels great,” Hopper said after being greeted by family, friends and neighbors. “It almost doesn’t seem real.”
His deployment in April involved some extra heartache because his wife, Mo, is battling a blood and bone marrow disease.
But now he’s back, and the neighborhood helped welcome him back, lining Windsor and Idlewild drives with banners and flags.
Mo said the homecoming celebration was Christmas, New Year’s, anniversary and birthday all rolled into one.
“It’s just been amazing,” she said.
Some of the signs greeting Hopper home said “Kill Devils.” Company C is known by that name in honor of Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks — site of the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903.
Pilots in Hopper’s unit used its UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to support the U.S. operation in Iraq.
“Our job was to transport the ranking officers in Iraq to wherever they needed to go,” Hopper said. That included Vice President Joe Biden, during his visit there.
The unit’s one-year deployment was shortened by President Obama’s announcement in October that all U.S. forces would depart Iraq by the end of the year.
Did Hopper believe it was time for the United States to pull out?
“You know, I don’t know …,” he said. “We were there to do our job no matter how long it would take.”
The unit, which has more than 80 soldiers, landed at Fort Hood on Dec. 24 to go through the demobilization process and started heading home as soon as they finished.
“We’re happy to have these soldiers home safe and with their families in time to ring in the new year,” said Maj. Gen. Greg Lusk, adjutant general of North Carolina in a press release.
“They’ve done an outstanding job supporting critical operations throughout Iraq, particularly playing a key role in the safe and efficient drawdown of U.S. forces there.”
Hopper was deployed to Kuwait in 1998-99 and said he had a low-key homecoming at the end of that stint.
But the welcome-home fanfare for this deployment has been different, starting with the landing at Fort Hood. Senior officers from North Carolina greeted the troops and shook their hands as they got off the plane in Texas.
Families met the troops when they landed in Charlotte Thursday afternoon.
Then his wife and his neighborhood went all out to welcome him to Salisbury.
Hopper, who retired as a major after 12 years in the regular Army, plans to take 30 days off before returning to work maintaining aircraft as safety officer for the Army National Guard unit here.
He has been with the National Guard for 16 years.
This was the unit’s second deployment to Iraq. From Oct. 31, 2004, until Jan. 12, 2006, it supported Operation Iraqi Freedom. Twenty-eight of its members had deployed at least once before this most recent mobilization, and three had been called up two or more times.
The unit is part of the nearly 12,000 citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen who make up the North Carolina National Guard’s ready team.