By LMH Scheduled
For May Of 2013
BY LAUREN HENRY
Last Christmas Eve, Private First Class Dillon O'Laughlin arrived in Afghanistan with the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division Stryker Brigade combat team.
This Christmas Eve, he will be joining his family around the Christmas tree in a home setting in Greeneville.
"We actually got there on Christmas Eve. We flew in pitch-black on the helicopters. We came in at three o' clock in the morning," he said, recalling last year.
O'Laughlin and the other soldiers were instructed to "call your families in the morning so they know you got in alright and go find a cot to sleep in."
This year it is a homecoming just in time for the holiday season. With his Afghanistan deployment complete, O'Laughlin is on leave for a month before returning to base in Seattle, Wash.
He came home Friday, stepping out of a plane and into his mother's open arms.
"He came home safe, and that was such an answer to prayer for me because so many of his brothers in arms didn't," said his mother, Cindy Collins.
"So many of his brothers didn't come home, but he did, and he is here with us at Christmas. So it just makes it all that more special."
Collins marked the occasion with a special gift, one that has a meaning linked to Dillon.
Last year when her son was deployed to Afghanistan, she gave to support Laughlin Memorial Hospital's first Wounded Warriors local 5K Race. This year, her company, MC Septic Services, wrote a check in honor of her son's safe homecoming.
"I'm very glad my mom is doing it," O'Laughlin said. He said the gift need not be in his honor, but he thinks it is important to support the cause which helps rehabilitate wounded veterans.
He also knows that he himself could have been one of those "wounded warriors."
"I'm very privileged to be home right now because I know I've had a lot of close calls, and I could very easily be one of those guys that didn't make it back or didn't come back the same as I left."
He enlisted about one year after graduating from North Greene High School. He was tired of his factory job and not knowing where his future was headed.
"I wanted to do something with myself," O'Laughlin said. "I wanted to come home and people to look at me and be proud of what I've done."
He left for Army basic training in May of 2011. He deployed to Afghanistan in December of that year for an 11-month assignment in the Zheray district of the Kandahar province.
"It wasn't until after I joined that I realized why I joined, honestly. I realized I was doing this for my family, and it may have been a spur of the moment thing, but I knew there was a reason why I did it, but at the time I just couldn't find it. I didn't know what it was.
"Once I realized what my reasoning for it was, it made it a whole lot easier to do what I did. It didn't change the fact that I missed my family every day for 11 months, but it was definitely worth it in the end when I came home."
Coming home meant finally seeing the family that helped him get through his deployment.
His family includes, besides his mother: his stepfather, Mark Collins; his father, John O'Laughlin and stepmother, Abi O'Laughlin; two brothers: Rudy O'Laughlin, 18, and Luke O'Laughlin, 12; a stepbrother, Tanner Collins, 16; a half-sister, Piper O'Laughlin, 6; and a half-brother, Keagan O'Laughin, 3.
The youngest half-brother wasn't old enough to remember Dillon when he deployed, but his father and stepmother supplied the young O'Laughlin with photos of his big brother and reminded him how he would one day come home.
The boy may not have recognized the soldier immediately, but, once reintroduced, the young boy simply stated, "Oh, you're my older brother." And asked O'Laughlin if he would spend the night.
PFC O'Laughlin said he has no special plans this holiday season other than to enjoy the company of his family and friends and enjoy a break from the army routine.
He's been looking forward to Christmas Eve with everyone gathered together and a few Southern treats such as biscuits and gravy and sweet tea.
He remembers the stark contrast of last Christmas and the thoughts running through his head.
He said he was "scared, honestly. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know what was going to happen. I just knew I wasn't with my family on Christmas ...."
His mother is thankful that this reality is in the past.
"This past year I have truly learned the meaning of the meaning of the word 'trust,'" Cindy Collins said.
"Our children truly are a gift from God. They belong to Him. And I've had to remind myself of that a lot this year. I know His plans for my children are perfect.
"I've had a lot of sleepless nights." Collins paused to wipe tears brimming in he corners of her eyes. "but I've had a lot of peace, and I'm just so thankful for God's perfect plan and protection.
"And [Dillon is] sitting at my kitchen table for Christmas."
Collins hopes to run in this year's Wounded Warrior 5k Race. The project is "near and dear to her heart."
It will be held May 4, 2013 at 8:30 a.m. on the grounds of the Clyde Austin 4-H Center.
For more information either about running or helping support the event financially, contact Tracy Green at (email@example.com) or call 787-5097, or Nic Crawford at 787-5063.
Pre-registration is due by April 28, 2013.