HERMISTON - The mood was festive.
Jim and Chris Webb were in high spirits as they sat in a booth at an Applebee's restaurant in Syracuse, New York last January. That day, the Hermiston couple would reunite with their son Daniel Webb at the airport after a 12-month deployment in Afghanistan.
Then came the phone call.
It was Daniel. The Army had decided to extend his deployment for several months. The celebratory mood at the table went as flat as a dropped souffle as Jim and Chris tried to process the dismal news.
"The poor waitress," Jim said. "We came in all happy - when she came back and it was like someone had died."
Though it took longer than expected, Daniel finally made it home to Hermiston this week.
Daniel, 22, is a sergeant in the Army's 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum in New York. In Afghanistan, he and other soldiers traveled from their base just north of the Pakistan border on daily health and welfare missions. They drove Humvees packed with wheat, seeds, tea, beans, notebooks, pens and other items and headed to villages of 50 to 100 people.
"We'd find the village elder and give him the supplies - he'd distribute them," Daniel said. "We didn't want to undermine his authority."
The health and welfare missions, he said, were part of a larger mission to stabilize the Texas-sized country and rebuild the Afghan infrastructure.
Roads in the dry, mountainous country were scarce - driving six to 10 miles could take an hour or longer.
"Mostly, we drove on river beds," Daniel said.
The soldiers passed occasional Afghan drivers behind the wheels of Toyota Hilux and Jingle Trucks.
Some of the villages were unfriendly to the Americans, allowing terrorists to set up nearby. At least once a week, the soldiers found themselves in combat situations. One day, Daniel was in a convoy of 10 vehicles when trouble started.
"We got ambushed on two sides of the road by 30-60 people," he said. "They pinned two vehicles in a valley area."
Daniel's function was to guide helicopters and planes to enemy forces by providing coordinates and sometimes smoke to get the pilots' attention. He got on the radio and requested air support, describing the convoy's location. Soon, two Apache helicopters came to the rescue.
"They chased the majority of the bad guys into Pakistan," he said.
His time in Afghanistan was "a huge geography lesson" as he learned about the Afghan culture and experienced the harsh climate - flash floods, extended periods of dryness and driving winds.
"People think that Hermiston is windy and dusty, it's a lot better than a lot of places in the world," Daniel said. "A slight breeze kicks up dust - it's a messed-up environment."
Despite weekly phone calls, Daniel's parents were ecstatic to see their son whole and healthy and in person, when he returned to the States. Jim said he and Chris worried constantly about Daniel's safety during his deployment, Daniel's second to Afghanistan.
While Daniel was away, Jim and Chris watched the news and checked blog sites multiple times each day. They stopped doing that after he returned, but know they'll resume the ritual eventually.
Daniel has signed on for four more years and another of their four sons, Aaron, just joined the Marines.
Daniel, a 2003 Hermiston High School grad, said he likes his job and is gaining invaluable experience and training in the military. He said it's not "if," but "when" he'll return to Afghanistan.
"I know I'm going back at least once and probably twice," he said.