Greg Northrup wasn't surprised when he heard he was going to Afghanistan.
After all, the former South Lake Tahoe resident was stationed at a Kentucky base with a high-deployment rate and aviation units like the one Northrup worked with were needed in the war zone.
"I had mentally prepared myself. I was a little nervous, a little excited, but not really too scared. My biggest fear was my wife and kids sitting here and not knowing what was going on," Northrup said.
Northrup, his wife, Christina, and their two daughters --now ages 2 and 5 - had been stationed in Fort Campbell, Ky. for six months when the family heard the news. Northrup would fly to a small base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan where he would serve as an avionic electronic system repair man for the OH 58 Delta Kiowa Warrior helicopter.
He arrived in the Middle East last September for a six-month tour that ended early Wednesday morning when he landed in Kentucky to be reunited with his family. After living through near weekly attacks and defending against suicide bombers in one of the largest terrorist attacks on a U.S. base of 2012, Northrup said the homecoming felt surreal.
"I still feel like I'm in shock," Northrup said Wednesday afternoon. "I feel like this is all not real. I've had so many dreams about coming home, I can't believe it actually happened."
Northrup joined the Army in 2010. He'd been holding down two jobs in South Lake Tahoe, and while the family made ends meet, Northrup said they weren't progressing. An aviation job in the military offered good benefits and a way forward, he said.
Northrup and his family arrived at Fort Campbell, Ky., in January 2012. By September, he'd packed his bags, said his farewells and taken off for Jalalabad.
The days settled into a routine once he arrived at the base. Northrup would spend 12 hours working on the Kiowa Warriors, two hours at the gym and eight to 10 hours sleeping --rest time often interrupted by incoming mortars.
The 3 1/2-mile base that housed about 4,500 people was pounded at least twice a month by Afghans firing bombs and rockets from the mountains and hoping they hit something. Most of the time they missed, Northrup said, but the fear was constant.
"You just hope you don't get hit. There's not much else you can do," he said.
One of the most severe attacks came two weeks into Northrup's stay when 14 rockets hit the base and damaged five of the Kiowa Warriors and five Black Hawks.
And on Dec. 2, more than a dozen Taliban suicide bombers armed with RPGs and assault rifles attempted to break into the base after exploding two vehicle-borne IEDs, or car bombs, at the gate. Within five minutes, Northrup said the American soldiers had two of the Kiowa Warriors off the ground and returning fire.
Throughout the fight, which lasted 2 1/2 hours, Northrup and the other U.S. servicemen rearmed the helicopters before the birds went back into the fray. It was the largest attack on the base since February 2012, and while the attackers and five Afghans were killed according to an Associated Press article, there were no American casualties.
"It was pretty intense. I felt pretty good because I was one of the key parts in it," Northrup said.
When Christina Northrup saw the Dec. 2 attack on the television, she couldn't believe it. She spoke with her husband 12 hours after the bombing and could hear his shock over the phone.
"I cried. I was so scared. He was literally shaking --you could hear it in his voice. It was terrible not to be able to do anything," Christina Northrup said. "You just sit there and you're dumbfounded. You don't expect it."
It was hard enough to say goodbye to her husband in the first place, Northrup said. The couple didn't have any friends or family at the Kentucky base, making the separation all the more taxing. It was horrible experience, Northrup said. Shortly after hearing about the upcoming deployment, the pair started marriage counseling.
Near daily Skype communication helped shrink the divide, but unreliable Internet and opposite hours made even those conversations difficult and Northrup admits she doesn't know how she handled it.
"I got depressed and then the holidays kicked in. When the holidays came, I felt like I had this pressure to be happy for my girls. Then New Year's came and I was about halfway through and I said, 'I can do this,'" she said.
The separation wasn't any easier on Gregory Northrup's mother, Sandra Goggiano. Her advice for other families with a son or daughter in the Middle East? Hang in there.
"It was an experience for me, it changed me. I just skated through and I didn't do so well myself at times. It was all day by day," she said.
Greg Northrup disembarked from the plane Wednesday morning and bolted straight to his daughters' arms. Husband and wife could only stare at each other.
"It was pretty intense. I had butterflies, I couldn't speak. It seemed unreal, like it wasn't happening. Having him walking around the house when its been empty for so long, it's been really trippy," Christina Northrup said.
Greg Northrup will undergo about a week of reintegration sessions before starting training for his new position as a UAV - short for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle --operator. It's a good position since more civilian companies are offering top dollar to drone pilots, he said.
After training in Arizona, Northrup and his family plan to take a two-week vacation in South Lake Tahoe.
"It's going to be amazing. I can't wait to get some Rum Runners at the Beacon and just have a blast," he said.