Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012 | 7:40 p.m.
The King family, decked out in matching patriotic T-shirts, waited eagerly outside a Mandalay Bay ballroom Sunday afternoon to catch a glimpse of their military hero.
Soon, a sea of uniformed soldiers entered the hallway. The 422nd Expeditionary Signal Battalion of the Nevada National Guard had arrived, ending a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
Cameras flashed and cheers erupted as loved ones found each other.
As Keith King embraced his son, Spc. Keith King Jr., he only needed three words to convey his joy: “You look good.”
They’re words every family could have uttered. The battalion returned with all of its 325 Nevada National Guard soldiers, none of whom suffered catastrophic injuries during the deployment, guard spokeswoman April Conway said.
The communications unit began serving Jan. 7 last year with training at Fort Lewis in Washington. On March 28, they headed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where, as Task Force Mercury, they supported five brigade combat teams and assumed control of communications for two regional commands.
They spent more than 14,000 hours completing 50-some cable missions, running more than 20,600 feet of fiber and 175,600 feet of cable, and establishing a network command center.
As the soldiers finished their tasks 7,000-some miles away, families and friends prepped for their arrival back home.
Keith King, who served in the Army for 21 years, and his father, Willie, cooked barbecue for their respective son and grandson. Meanwhile, Anita King made the younger Keith’s favorite dishes and activated a Facebook countdown for his arrival.
“I’m familiar with deployments, but it’s always a joy to bring them back home,” Anita King said. “There’s always this fear that your baby is not coming home.”
Down the hall from the King family, Staff Sgt. Nate Borja tried to coax a smile out of his 2-year-old daughter, Kendra, who suddenly had become shy amid all the excitement.
His loved ones also had been busy gearing up for the reunion. His wife, Bernadette, made sure “Team Borja” had T-shirts, balloons and homemade posters to welcome him home — making it impossible for him to miss them in the crowded hallway.
“It’s great — one of the greatest feelings seeing all my family and all the support,” he said. “I didn’t expect to see all the signs. It was a surprise.”
Gov. Brian Sandoval welcomed home the battalion, eliciting a hearty round of applause from the crowd as he thanked the soldiers for their service. It was the Nevada National Guard’s second-largest deployment since Sept. 11, officials said.
“Every soldier in this room is now a part of history as the war in Iraq comes to a close and America continues to make strides for peace in Afghanistan,” Sandoval said. “The role each of you has played will forever be a part of that historic and monumental effort. You have brought honor to your unit, your state and your nation.”
Nevada Sen. Dean Heller also briefly spoke at the ceremony, along with representatives on behalf of Sen. Harry Reid, Rep. Shelley Berkley and Rep. Joe Heck.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Hansen, the battalion’s commander, called his soldiers “the best and the brightest,” who saved lives during their deployment.
“To say that I’m proud of them would be grossly understated,” he said.
The commander’s remarks ended the long-awaited reunion for the battalion’s 200 soldiers from Southern Nevada. The other 125 boarded a plane bound for Reno after the ceremony, Conway said.
For Keith King Jr., that meant a shower and food as soon as possible.
“It’s been a long time in the making,” he said, smiling as his family encircled him.