New Zealand soldiers have returned home tonight after a gruelling six-month deployment to Afghanistan, where they lost five comrades in the line of duty.
Emotional friends and family hugged and kissed the 90 army personnel on the tarmac at Christchurch International Airport. They were hailed as returning heroes, having made it through the ill-fated 20th tour of duty NZDF personnel to the war-torn country as part of the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (NZPRT).
Carly Rurehe-Blank, 36, said her 8-year-old son Gibson son was itching to see his father, Rodney Blank.
Tears flowed when they were finally reunited yesterday when the 36-year-old sergeant came through the arrivals gate.
"It's been a long six months, especially hard this time with all the incidents," Mrs Rurehe-Blank said, referring to the five deaths last month.
Lance Corporals Pralli Durrer and Rory Malone, both 26, were killed in a gunfight at the Battle of Baghak after going to help ambushed Afghani colleagues on August 4.
A fortnight later, on August 19, Corporal Luke Tamatea, 31, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, 26, and Private Richard Harris, 21, were killed instantly when a 20kg roadside improvised explosive device (IED) destroyed their Humvee in northeast Bamiyan Province, where the 2nd/1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment (2/1 RNZIR) was based.
Sergeant Blank was friends with Corporal Tamatea and his wife said today he was still coming to grips with his mate's death.
And even though Sergeant Blank has now completed two Afghan tours, two of East Timor, and several to Iraq as a private security contractor, his wife said: "It never gets any easier."
His mother Sue was also there to greet him, but the emotion of the day was too much for her husband Lawrence to bear.
He stayed at home in Rangiora, waiting to share with his son the beer which has sat in his fridge since the day he shipped out to Afghanistan.
"Nobody has been allowed to touch those two beers. They'll enjoy it together," Mrs Blank said.
She said her son - and his colleagues - were true heroes.
"Going to a hell-hole like that - and it is a hell-hole - takes a truly special person," she said.
Children waved banners and mothers broke down in tears as the soldiers trickled through the arrival gates.
A bleary-eyed Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Pete Hall paid tribute to his troops, especially how they conducted themselves after the loss of their comrades.
"They pulled together, carried on with the job at hand, finished their task and are back home safely,"
"There's nasty people over there doing nasty things, and it's our job to make it a little bit better for everyone else, and hopefully we achieved that.
"Something like losing people overseas is always hard, but it gels people together as well. Really all we're thinking about is being home, being with our families, and also thinking of the families of our mates who have died.
The remainder of the contingent returned to New Zealand last week.