Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

September 9, 2011

A warm welcome

A Cherokee County airman returned home Wednesday after spending more than six months in Afghanistan.

TAHLEQUAH — After spending seven months in an area known as the Horn of Panjwaii, west of Kandahar in Afghanistan, Airman Mark Stafford was welcomed home Wednesday night by family and friends.

Stafford, an explosive ordinance disposal technician in the U.S. Air Force, is back home in Cherokee County for three weeks. Then, he’ll return to McChord Air Force Base in Washington, where he may carry out various missions while in the U.S., and await his next appointment, which should be at least six months away.

“I’m hoping for the minimum six months. I’m ready to go,” said Stafford. “We have a really cool mission. It actually makes a difference, and it’s so much fun. There’s nothing like that adrenaline rush.”

His parents, Lynne and Reggie Arterberry, and his sisters, Becky Welch and Laura Pittser, were part of the welcome-home festivities this week, which began at an airport in Tulsa and picked up with a surprise gathering back home in Welling.

Family and friends were anxious to see Stafford, and Stafford said he’s happy to be back home to relax for a few weeks.

“They had no access to phones – they had a satellite phone, but it was limited use and not reliable,” said his mom, Lynne. “So he would call me occasionally, and that was the only contact we had. They’d spend three, four days on a mission, and we wouldn’t know [what was happening]. A piece of my heart has been in Afghanistan.”

During his first tour in Afghanistan, Stafford was stationed with several different infantry groups. Most of the time, his team was focused on its main mission of disarming bombs, frequently referred to as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

“And we got in a handful of firefights,” said Stafford.

During the last firefight, the leader of Stafford’s three-man team was injured, and the troops had to leave the region quickly. Lynne said that was hard on Stafford because of the relationships he’d made with the people of Afghanistan.

“He really likes the people there and feels good about what he’s doing, and when they had to leave quickly, he didn’t get to say good-bye, which was hard,” said Lynne.

Stafford said he and the other two men in his EOD team are like family, though they didn’t know each other prior to their mission. He expects they’ll be friends for a lifetime.

A 2003 Tahlequah High School graduate, Stafford went on to major in sociology at the University of Oklahoma. After graduating there, he realized he wanted to go into the Air Force.

His mother said the decision was a bit surprising on one hand, but Stafford has grandparents, uncles and cousins who have served in the military, so in a way, her son’s choice made sense.

“He did a test, and they said EOD is where he needs to be, it’s his talent,” said Lynne. “That was scary, but Mark assured me it would be OK, and I have faith in God.”

Stafford expects to continue his service in the military, or perhaps to eventually work in the same field in the private sector, as a contractor.

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