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Montreal-area troops return home from Iraq for the holidays

Royal Canadian Air Force troops return home for holidays
WATCH: Royal Canadian Air Force troops return home for the holidays.

Patricia Colbert-Houle waited six months for her husband, Maj. André Valiquette, to come home from Iraq.

On Saturday, four days before Christmas, that wait turned into a reunion at Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport.

“With the [pre-deployment] training and everything, it’s been almost a year,” Colbert-Houle said.

Valiquette and other troops, mainly members of 438 Tactical Helicopter Squadron based in Saint-Hubert, south of Montreal, were reunited with about a dozen family and friends at the airport.  Squadron members have been returning home over the last three weeks, according to the unit’s commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Martin Houle, who was also at the airport to greet his troops.

Fourteen of them — the last wave of Montreal-area troops — returned Saturday.

READ MORE: Canada’s mission in Iraq shifts again with ISIS in retreat

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Many of them are pilots who were in Iraq as part of Operation Impact to support other NATO troops, including Canadians, who are training Iraqi forces.

“They were flying helicopters there in support of the mission,” explained Houle.

Operation Impact started in 2014 as Canada’s contribution to the global fight against the so-called Islamic State. According to the Canadian Forces, there are more than 800 Canadian troops serving as part of that effort.

Houle, who commanded a contingent there six months ago, says the mission wasn’t as dangerous as it once would have been.

“When we fly around, we go from protected camp to different protected camp,” he told Global News. “You see, the situation in Iraq has evolved over the years.”

But he says while the situation is more stable now, it is still not without risk, which means that for the family members of those deployed, like Colbert-Houle, there were definitely some tense moments.

“Especially in the last month and a half, I would say, with the manifestations that were going on around Iraq,” she said.

The protests that started in Iraq earlier this fall were partly over U.S. policies in the region and against what demonstrators saw as corruption in the Iraqi government. Several protesters have been killed in those demonstrations.

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READ MORE: Supporters of Iran-backed militia group in Iraq stage protest over U.S. sanctions

Colbert-Houle says she was told her husband wasn’t in danger, but she still worried.

“Even though we are informed, have good communications, we still never know what they’re in,” she said.

That anxiety, for her and other family members, came to an end Saturday night when the troops finally arrived. Five members from the squadron’s band played as the troops caught up with those they had left behind.

Sieyna Em couldn’t hold back tears as her husband, Lt. Benoit Forest, who served as logistics officer with the group in Iraq, approached her.

“It was not easy for me,” she said, “but now he’s back safe.”

Forest agreed that it was hard for them to be separated.

“It was long,” he said. “But the good thing about this tour is that we came back for two weeks after three months, so we had a break in between, which really helped. But the last month was pretty long.”

Valiquette, who commanded the contingent and is also the deputy commanding officer of 438 Squadron, said he’s just glad his troops are home safe.

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“Oh, just happy to be home,” he said. “It was nice to see everybody come home at the end of the mission like that, be home for the holidays and meet up with their families.”

Other Montreal-area troops from other units are also coming home, with one small group arriving on Monday. The returning soldiers will now go on a Christmas and post-deployment leave before returning to regular duties.

The unit replacing 438 Squadron in Iraq, the 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron from Edmonton, is already in theatre.