Before stepping aboard the military transport flight in Kandahar in late May, Maryland Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Luis Benitez Jr. turned around for one last glimpse of Afghanistan: mountains in the background, clear skies and a line of troops walking toward the plane, smiles all around.
"All those smiling faces — that was a nice feeling," said Benitez, a 30-year-old mechanic from Aberdeen who boarded the plane that day with more than 150 other members of the 1229th Transportation Company, wrapping up nearly a year in Afghanistan spent repairing vehicles, and moving equipment and supplies all over the country.
They carried out 55 separate operations, shuttling equipment into, out of and around the country, more than 23,000 tons of trucks and supplies constantly on the move.
There were no casualties during the 11-month deployment, said Col. Charles S. Kohler, a Maryland National Guard spokesman.
Benitez and more than 100 members of the unit, back in Maryland since early June, got their official welcome home Saturday at the Baltimore War Memorial as part of the Army National Guard's Freedom Salute campaign, with expressions of thanks and tokens of appreciation handed out in the form of flags, commemorative pins and plaques.
This ceremony featured an appearance by former Ravens linebacker and current ESPN football commentator Ray Lewis, who knows some members of the unit, said Staff Sgt. Thaddeus Harrington, a Guard spokesman.
Wearing a dark suit, white shirt and dark tie, Lewis sat on the stage alongside five National Guard officials in their field camouflage uniforms, including Maj. Gen. James A. Adkins, the adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard.
"Athletics is cool, and it's awesome," Lewis told a crowd of more than 200, including soldiers, their families and friends. "But to stand for something, to mean something, to protect people you may one day never meet, that's a hero."
Sounding at times like a pastor delivering a sermon, Lewis spoke for about 20 minutes, thanking the soldiers for their military service and urging them to continue their work in the community as they return home.
His audience included men and women who supported combat operations and the effort to draw down NATO forces in Afghanistan, where troops have been deployed since just after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
From a peak of 100,000 U.S. troops — the bulk of the NATO force — about 29,000 remained as of last week, according to information compiled by the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan. The Obama administration plans to have almost all U.S. troops out by the end of the year.
Benitez was on his first deployment to Afghanistan, but his third with the Army National Guard since he first volunteered in 2007 when he was about 23 years old, working at a Harford County printing company and feeling he "just wanted to do something for my country."
He volunteered for all three assignments — the first two were in Iraq — and was with a different unit each time. He remembers the second stint, deployed to a base near Kuwait, as particularly stressful. At one point a rocket-propelled grenade exploded in front of the truck he was riding in, he said.
Now, with four years left on his Guard contract, he'll go back to his job as a technician for the federal government at a mechanics shop in Dundalk and await the next call. He's one of seven members of the returning 1229th with at least three deployments.
Sgt. Latoya Miller, another returning member of that group of seven, plans to resume her nursing studies at the Community College of Baltimore County and also be ready for the next call, although she hopes it's not to Afghanistan.
"I was there twice; the second time around was probably the worst," said Miller, 31, a resident of Baltimore, who served in Iraq and once before in Kandahar. "Things were changing, they were shutting down. … I just wanted to get out of there."
Kohler, the Guard spokesman, said troops can be particularly vulnerable as their numbers diminish while operations wind down.
Master Sgt. Adam Erickson marked his fourth deployment since soon after Sept. 11, 2001, including two stints in Iraq. The 41-year-old Millersville resident will be going back to his work at the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va., an administrative headquarters, and getting acquainted with his new baby, Alexandra, who was born to Erickson and his wife in April.
And he'll wait for the next assignment, which he figures could come at any time.
"In today's environment, who knows?" said Erickson, who joined in 1992. "Six months from now, we could get another call."