181st returns; Area soldiers joyfully welcomed after year in Afghanistan.

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Byline: Bronislaus B. Kush

WORCESTER - Mario Morales - after spending almost a year serving with the Massachusetts National Guard in Afghanistan -figured his toddler son might have grown up a bit.

But little did he know how much young Alexander had sprouted.

"Look at you. You've really grown up a lot," said the Southbridge man, as he perched the happy 2-year-old on his shoulders. "And look at your hair! Now that I'm home I'm going to get you a good haircut!"

Yesterday, Mr. Morales, along with 143 other soldiers from the MNG's 1st Battalion, 181st Infantry Regiment, joyfully reunited with his family after returning home from deployment to the Middle East.

The troops were part of a contingent of 600 soldiers from armories in Worcester, Hudson, Gardner, Agawam, and Cambridge sent to Afghanistan last August as part of the military's Operation Enduring Freedom.

"We live in a great country, so I didn't mind giving a year of my life to the service," said Mr. Morales.

Yesterday afternoon, the 144 troops - all from Headquarters Company - were welcomed home at the unit's headquarters on Skyline Drive near Green Hill Park by about 300 family members.

Sgt. Jeremiah J. Clark said the rest of the "1-181" will be home no later than Wednesday.

The troops from Massachusetts had been assigned to 12 reconstruction teams in eastern, western, and southern Afghanistan.

Officials said their job was to provide security, back the authority of the Afghan central government, and facilitate work on various rebuilding projects. The unit was also responsible for security and base defense operations at Camp Phoenix in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

For their efforts, they got a big welcome-home reception, as joyous relatives filled the parking lot next to the Massachusetts Guard Headquarters building.

There were various signs posted along a metal fence welcoming particular troops.

Many vehicles were also sprayed with messages.

"Welcome home daddy. My hero," said one, which was emblazoned on the window of a blue family van.

A little after 3:30 p.m., three chartered buses, escorted by state police, pulled up Skyline Drive and parked in front of the headquarters building.

The troops, shortly after, marched in formation down the roadway, drawing a round of hearty applause and cheers.

After receiving some last words from Capt. Mark Chaney, the unit's commander, the soldiers broke ranks and sought out their beloved relatives.

"It's so good to be back," said George Laraba...

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