THEY arrived to a crowded sergeants’ mess charged with emotion, ahead of a Christmas Day they never thought would be spent together.
Welling up with tears, wives and girlfriends embraced their partners and held them close as the 61 1 Scots soldiers – still wearing miliary garb – strode into barracks to a fanfare reception.
Relieved fathers hugged battle-hardened sons amid whoops and cheers while the eyes of waiting families searched feverishly for that first glimpse of their own returning hero.
When the commotion subsided, many soldiers were kissing their babies – some just days old when they left for Afghanistan – while others made for a corner bar to enjoy their first cold pint in three months.
A school-age child flashed a smile and pointed excitedly to a gap, a reminder of just one landmark moment his father had missed.
Moments lost at home is just one cost of war, however – worse is the very real threat to life.
Captain Walter Barrie paid the ultimate price on this latest tour, killed by a rogue member of the Afghan army as he played football on Remembrance Day. The 41-year-old was buried last month and was described as a “brilliant bloke” and a “soldiers’ soldier” by colleagues.
Since embarking on their six-month tour of Afghanistan in September, the Royal Scots Borderers, 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland (1 Scots) have been working with members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Camp Shorabak, which is the Afghan base attached to Bastion, in an advisory and training role.
Back three months early, the Ministry of Defence said the move was part of planned troop reduction in the country which will see the number of service personnel reduce from 9500 to 9000 before Christmas.
Yesterday, a further announcement by Prime Minister David Cameron indicated troop numbers will fall to about 5200 by the end of 2013.
All Nato operations are due to finish by the end of 2014 when responsibility will be transferred to Afghan forces, but a number of British troops will remain in the country to work on the handover.
1 Scots have been able to hand over some of their bases to Afghan control and therefore the entire battalion is no longer required to remain in the country.
The soldiers will not be going back to Afghanistan after Christmas and will spend the rest of the battalion’s tour carrying out routine duties at Dreghorn Barracks.
Returning from his eighth tour of duty, which included stints in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq, Corporal Robert Allan is one experienced soldier thankful for this rare early reprieve from duty.
The 34-year-old, from Edinburgh, was warmly greeted by his wife and four children but took hold of newborn baby Noah, whom he had last seen at just nine days old.
“It’s great to be back,” he says without lifting gaze from his babe-in-arms.
“It’s going to be amazing to spend Christmas Day at home with my family. I’m going to chillax now and take things slow for a while.”
Speaking from Afghanistan, Major Andy Watson, 33, from Edinburgh, said: “It was a strange feeling [to see them go]. I was, first of all, very pleased with the mission that they achieved.
“They went home because the ANA that they were advising are more than capable of conducting operations themselves.
“So mission success, but clearly losing three multiples – it’s sad to see them go, but it’s all for the best.”
He added: “Clearly you want to be home with your family at this time of year, and quite a few of us have spent time away at Christmas over the past four or five years.
“However, when your company is on operations, I’d be no other place if my Jocks were here. This is where I’d want to be.
“I’m sure we’ll make it a special day and it’ll be one to remember.”
Over the moon to be home
LANCE Corporal Chris Fleming returned unscathed from Helmand province into the arms of girlfriend Claire and two-year-old daughter Sophie.
But he wasn’t so fortunate on his first tour in 2010, when he was shot in the left arm while out on patrol near the Afghan town of Sangin.
Then a private, Mr Fleming was wounded just two months after arriving in the country but returned to frontline action having begged to return to Helmand with one month out for treatment.
The 21-year-old, from Wester Hailes, said he was “over the moon” to be home with his family a few months earlier than planned.
“Obviously, getting to spend Christmas with my girlfriend rather than being in Afghanistan is special.
“It’s always better being at home with your family. We were told a few weeks ago that there would be a reduction in numbers but we didn’t know who it would affect. I was really chuffed I was one of those but I wish the soldiers still over there all the best.”
Girlfriend Claire Carson, 19, said she “couldn’t wait” to see her partner home safe.
“The fact he was injured on his first tour made it even harder this time. But I’m so pleased he’s home with me and Sophie.”
Back in time for birth of first child
PRIVATE Alex Spence was especially grateful to cut short his first tour of Afghanistan – because it meant he would be present for the birth of his first child.
The 18-year-old was likely to have missed the big day by several months if he had remained at the frontline for the full course of the tour.
Instead, he was reunited with his heavily pregnant girlfriend Kirsty Merrylees who said having her childhood sweetheart home to support her during labour was the perfect early Christmas present.
Private Spence said: “It’s great coming home early because I really wanted to be home for Christmas and now it means I can help Kirsty through [labour]. I can help financially and we can get a house and things.
“Christmas would have been very different in Afghanistan. It would have been a typical average day, with roaming patrols and then Christmas dinner at night, that would be it. Christmas now will be amazing.”
Kirsty, 19, his girlfriend of four years, said she had hoped Alex would be back in time for the birth but had also made plans for his absence. “Having him around for the birth, and having him there to support me makes it less stressful,” she said. “My due date is February and we had try to arrange his R&R [rest and recuperation] times around that but we didn’t know for sure if he would be back for the birth.
“The army was really good allowing him to have first pick of his R&R dates but it still wasn’t definite he would be back.”
And she added: “The idea of Christmas without him was gutting. When we found out some of the troops were coming back home early I never though it would be him.
“I just jumped about with his dad when we got the news. This Christmas will be extra special.”
Alex’s sister Natasha Spence, who celebrated her 20th birthday on the day of his return, said having her brother home was the best present she could have dreamed off.
She said: “It’s hard to sleep at night when he was on tour because you can’t stop thinking about him.”