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December 22. 2012 10:06PM

Daughter's return from Afghanistan lifts hearts


Patricia Gill is shown with her daughter Candia Rizzo and dog Ben. Rizzo is a chief warrant officer with the 428th Engineer Detachment in the U.S. Army Reserve and came home from deployment in September. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

LONDONDERRY - There are presents under her tree, but Patricia Gill already has all she asked for this Christmas. It wasn't wrapped in pretty paper or a big bow. Her Christmas wish was granted last September, when her daughter stepped off a plane in Manchester, home from a 10-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.

"My prayers were answered," said Gill. "I turned to God many times. Not every parent was so blessed. It's a chance that is taken, that she may not come home. I was very lucky that she did."

Gill's daughter, Chief Warrant Officer II Candia Rizzo, led 13 other members of the 428th Survey and Design Team, based out of Londonderry, on a mission to Kandahar in the fall of 2011. The unit was tasked with providing support for Regional Command South overseas. Regional Command South is a multinational military command, a component of NATO's larger International Security Assistance Force.

"It was a good experience," said Rizzo, a Derry resident. "We were busy. We did a lot of original design work and handled a lot of project proposals. We also had survey teams out on the job sites, looking at locations where projects would be built."

It may sound like Rizzo's unit was in a relatively safe area of Afghanistan. But there are no "front lines'' there, she said, and danger can lurk on any stretch of ground.

"It was challenging at times," said Rizzo. "It's a very volatile area of Afghanistan that we were in. It's a hot spot for IEDs, small-arms fire and RPG rockets. There's quite a population of insurgency in that area. I'm really proud of the unit. Everyone just fell back on their training and relied on each other."

Gill said it was hard getting through the holidays last year without her daughter, who also spent a birthday overseas (she turned 35 on Dec. 16).

"She was on the other side of the world," said Gill. "I felt like any parent would feel about their child being away. Not being able to hug them, smile at them, and reach out to them. The only way I could was through writing or sending packages. I would send packages, packages and more packages. It is so very important for the troops to know that they are thought of every single day. Whenever they are not on American soil, they are in harm's way. We need to show them care and respect, and lots of love."

Gill said she relied on a tight network of those close to her to get her through Candia's deployment.

"I had a lot of support from my friends and family," said Gill. "God help me, but Bible studies and my Christian upbringing helped me get through, as well. I knew that if something happened, she would be in the hands of God. I knew that if she didn't return home to hug me, to smile at me, it would mean she was with God. Even today I still get emotional about it. My prayers were answered. She came back, and I pray for those that are not as blessed as I am. I really feel badly for them because I understand the pain."

Rizzo said this time of year is particularly difficult for anyone stationed away from their family.

"I missed the everyday events," said Rizzo. "I missed my horses and my cats and my dogs. I missed having my own place. I tend to separate myself from my life back here. I suppose it's like a protection mechanism. I tend to become a little unemotional when I get like that, a little straight-edged, but it gets me through it. I missed green. There's hardly any trees. I guess what I missed the most was freedom - the freedom to get in my car and go wherever I want.

"People say they (soldiers) must be in denial, but they are protecting themselves," said Gill. "The walls go up. Some have clay walls, some have wood walls. Some have had them up so long they have lead walls."

Gill said she feels a kinship with New Hampshire families with someone deployed overseas this Christmas season.

"There is a lot of self-sacrifice that military personnel and their families go through," said Gill. "They are defending our freedom. When you watch people burn the flag because they are angry, they have the freedom to do that, and the reason they have the freedom to do that is because of families like ours. It's not an easy thing. Everything good takes sacrifice. Every single one of the troops, I have respect and care for every one of them, and my prayers and thoughts are with all their families."


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