By Rex Hall, Jr.
For Alyssa Malott, the nine months she spent in Afghanistan last year was a life-changing experience.
"It's a learning experience, it's a life experience," the 24-year-old from Granger, Ind., said. "It builds you as a person."
Malott was one of more than 70 members of the 415th Civil Affairs Battalion, a U.S. Army Reserves unit headquartered in Kalamazoo, who were honored Sunday at a Welcome Home Warrior ceremony at The Prairies Golf Club.
The event was a chance to honor the soldiers and their families for their sacrifice during the unit's one-year deployment, which included training at Camp Atterbury in Indiana followed by nine months overseas in Afghanistan before returning home in July.
During their time in Afghanistan, members of the unit were split into eight provincial reconstruction teams and tasked with, among other things, providing safety in the country's different provinces to allow for economic growth and community development.
"We so much appreciate your service," said U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, who was part of a contingent of local officials who attended Sunday's event. "It is indeed an incredible sacrifice, that's for sure You were the folks on the line who really helped.
"The bottom line is you made a difference."
In addition to Upton, state Reps. Jase Bolger, Sean McCann and Margaret O'Brien, as well as state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell and Portage Mayor Pro-Tem Claudette Reid also were at the ceremony.
Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Weaver said he appreciated Sunday's ceremony, especially because soldiers' families were honored during the event for the sacrifices they made while he and his counterparts were deployed.
"I think that's the hardest job," Weaver said of soldiers' families.
Weaver, 45, of Cedar Springs, said he is set to retire in November after serving 20 years in the military. Mention of his retirement Sunday drew applause from his daughter Dakota Weaver, 14, and his stepdaughter, Cortney Aspinall, 12.
"Just leaving your family it's never an easy thing and it's a lot of adjustment when you go and it's a lot of adjustment when you come back," he said.
Malott said the deployment, which was her first in four years in the military, was a positive experience and gave her and the other members of her unit a chance to interact with the Afghan people on a face-to-face level.
On Sunday, she specifically remembered a young Afghan girl who clung to Malott after meeting her and then remembered Malott by name two to three months later when they met again.
"I think the people really could see the care we put into it," Malott said. "The care, the planning."