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Bloomington soldier returns home from Afghan tour

By ALLISON MILES
Nov. 12, 2012 at 5:12 a.m.
Updated Nov. 13, 2012 at 5:13 a.m.

Jane Arredondo hugs her son, Eric Salinas, upon his return home to Bloomington after a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan with the 721st Engineer Company.

MEDALS OF HONOR

Cpl. Eric Salinas, an engineer in the U.S. Army, has received numerous awards and acclamations during his time in the service. Those include:

• The Steel Order of the de Fleury Medal: Awarded to recognize junior soldiers and civilians within the engineer regiment

Source: Army Engineer Association website

• The Army Achievement Medal: Given for outstanding achievement or meritorious service of a type that would not otherwise warrant receiving the commendation medal

Source: USMilitaryMedals.com

• The Air Force Achievement Medal: Given for outstanding achievement or meritorious service rendered on behalf of the Air Force

Source: Air Force Personnel Center website

• The Army Commendation Medal: Given to soldiers who distinguish themselves through heroism or meritorious achievements or service

Source: ArmyAwards.com

BLOOMINGTON - A guy can plan all he wants, but there's no fooling Mom. It's something Cpl. Eric Salinas, with the United States Army, learned the hard way.

Salinas recently wrapped up a yearlong tour in Afghanistan and planned to surprise his mother, Jane Arredondo, when he returned to his Bloomington home.

Mom, however, was ready for him.

"I was texting his girlfriend. She told me when he was in El Paso and then San Marcos," she said, smiling. "She knows not to lie to me."

Surprise or not, Salinas said it felt good to be home, although the change took some adjustment.

As an Army engineer, he said he's used to the massive Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV) he maneuvered through Afghan terrain. Compare that to driving a regular car, and it doesn't match up.

"My first day back, I drove 35 mph, looking on the side of the road for IEDs," he said with a laugh, referring to the roadside bombs he searched out overseas.

Military life was always in the cards for Salinas, a 25-year-old who signed up in 2007.

"I've always wanted to do it. She didn't know that," the brown-haired guy with the American flag T-shirt said, with a glance at Mom. "I didn't tell her until after I'd joined."

He served his first tour in Iraq from 2009 to 2010. During his most recent tour, he arrived in Afghanistan on Dec. 16 and returned stateside in late October.

This time around wasn't always easy, Salinas said.

His job was to clear the way for other teams to make it through safely, he said - no easy task during the rainy season with bad roads - while he also helped during construction and deconstruction on various bases.

He put more than 8,000 miles on the M-ATV throughout his stay, typically serving as lead gun truck driver. Although his team located 10 roadside bombs throughout the year, a tan-colored helmet with paint scraped off the top is physical proof of the obstacles they faced.

"That happened when we hit an IED," he said, pointing toward the green patches showing through. "My head hit the top of the vehicle."

A twisted piece of metal, shrapnel that tore through his tent from a nearby rocket attack, is another souvenir from his service.

No one was killed during this past tour, he said, but 27 people received Purple Heart medals, while about 10 were sent home for pre-existing injuries.

Regardless of the danger, Salinas said he's proud of the work he and his brother soldiers are doing.

The soldiers are helping train the Afghan army and police force so they know how to do their jobs correctly, he said, and that's rewarding.

"I think we're making progress," he said. "It's going a little slow, but it's better than nothing."

His overseas service has also taught him to be thankful for what he and others around him have.

"Over there, you see kids begging for food or candy," he said. "Most of the kids I talked to through an interpreter didn't even know when their birthdays were. A lot of people here don't appreciate how good they have it."

Salinas' time at home is nearing its end - he leaves Wednesday for Hungary to see his girlfriend of nearly three years - but he says he plans to enjoy his time off. While in Hungary, he said he looks forward to hunting, fishing and a bit of relaxation.

He returns to Bloomington in March, but from there? Who knows.

His Army contract spans through 2015, but he said he doesn't know what will happen afterward.

As for Mom, she said she was glad to have him back safe and sound, even if it was just for a bit.

On Sunday, the family gathered for an early Thanksgiving dinner, while those same family members pelted their soldier with confetti-filled eggs because he missed the Easter celebration.

"I was restless every day he was gone," his mom said. "I can breathe again now that he's home."

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