Sgt. Michael McKinley, 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division, left, and Spc. Rick Lindsey, 215th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, right, ride a bus to Cooper Field for a homecoming ceremony Wednesday at Fort Hood.

Troops reflect on improvements, accomplishments overseas

By Rose L. Thayer

Killeen Daily Herald

FORT HOOD — As the white buses drove the route from Robert Gray Army Airfield to Cooper Field Wednesday afternoon, an atmosphere of excitement coupled with exhaustion filled the vehicles.

After all, it’s after 1 in the morning in Baghdad, said a female soldier in the back of the bus, referring to the time zone she left 30 hours earlier. The bus ride was the final leg of the journey home for nearly 300 soldiers of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, and conversation was reflective as they discussed their multiple deployments to Iraq.

“I’ve spent more time in Iraq than in any state in the last 10 years,” said Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Armer, 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion. He has deployed to Iraq three times, including during the surge in 2003.

“(Iraqis) take a little more pride in their country now,” he said, comparing this deployment to past ones. “At the end of the first year, I knew we had made a difference.”

Armer’s battalion was the last Army unit to leave Iraq Saturday night. Soldiers were stationed at Contingency Operating Base Adder, which was the last base to close.

Capt. Maria Ige, 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, said it was eerie watching the installation go from a 12,000-soldier population when they began their deployment in February to the final 400.

“As people moved out of different sections, it was completely dark,” she said.

“My soldiers called it the ghost town,” said Armer.

Ige deployed to Iraq once before, but she said this tour was much more difficult.

“Nobody came in after us. We had to make sure to close out everything,” said Ige, who was on the last flight out of Iraq. “It was exciting, but there was still that uncertainty of not knowing. None of us have ever done this before. That was the nerve-racking part.”

Brigade Chaplain Maj. Martin Kendrick also deployed during the surge in 2003 and said he saw improvements not just in the Iraqi people, but also in the way the Army supported units downrange.

He said soldiers are now offered a variety of counseling services to help deal with the stress of being away from their families.

After about 20 minutes, the white buses turned onto Battalion Avenue and soldiers stared silently out the windows at the cheering crowds — their voices muffled by the windows and the engines of the buses.

When asked if they were excited to see everyone waiting, Ige shrugged and hoisted her backpack on her shoulder.

“We’ve done this before,” she said.

As the soldiers marched onto Cooper Field, family and friends cheered and waved homemade banners, one even offering a marriage proposal.

Before “charging” their loved ones, 215th Brigade Support Battalion and 3rd Brigade uncased their colors, officially marking their return to Fort Hood.

Commander’s remarks

Col. Douglas Crissman, commander of the brigade, said it was an honor for Greywolf to be the final representation of the Army in Iraq, calling it a fitting end for a brigade that’s deployed to the country four times.

“Any brigade could have performed the mission that we did, but it fell to us because we were there in the southern portion of the country,” he said.

Near the end of the deployment, Greywolf was responsible for securing a 220 miles stretch of the International Highway, which ran north to south and was traveled by other units leaving Iraq through Kuwait.

Crissman said as other 1st Cavalry Division soldiers to their north traveled through Adder, their excitement of returning home grew.

“We knew sort of how the units had to progress,” he said. “We knew as soon as Ironhorse passed we were next.”

The biggest challenge of the mission hit within the last 60 days, said Crissman. Tough decisions had to be made while balancing risk and force protection with continuing the mission.

“We had to assume risk at certain places just to be able to reduce our vulnerabilities and close bases earlier than we might have preferred to close them,” he said. “All in the interest of making sure all of our people and our equipment could get out in time and we weren’t going to have that traffic jam in the end.”

Even though Greywolf will be remembered as the last brigade to leave, Crissman said no matter when or where in Iraq a soldier deployed over the last eight

and a half years, they should be proud of their contribution.

“No other country in the world could have done what we did. No other army has the capability to pull off what we did in Iraq,” he said. “Iraq now has opportunities that it could have previously only dreamed of because of the contributions of all those folks.”