Buses carrying 188 Illinois National Guard troops on the last legs of their trips home from Afghanistan fanned out across the state Monday, bringing to an end a yearlong deployment that cost 18 of the state's soldiers their lives.
About 3,000 members of the state's 33rd Infantry Brigade started moving into Afghanistan last fall to train Afghan police and soldiers, just as the war there turned more violent and the country less stable. All but a handful are home.
"The level of expertise with the Taliban increased, the IEDs they were using became more powerful, the level of suicide bombings increased," said Maj. Gen. William Enyart, the Illinois Guard's commander.
"It was a difficult year in terms of the losses that we took. But I think that the 33rd really proved the value of the National Guard."
While the Illinois brigade lost 18 members, the unit it replaced -- a New York brigade -- lost eight in its nine-month deployment.
According to the guard, Illinois soldiers received 100 Purple Hearts and 130 Bronze Stars. Among other things, they helped build 15 schools and a dozen clinics and delivered 2.7 million pounds of humanitarian aid. They're being replaced by a Georgia Guard unit.
Returning troops enter guard programs to help them ease into civilian life. Some need only a little counseling, others more.