For the fourth time, Kelly Colter of Lacey waited anxiously for the final minutes to pass before she could welcome back her husband from war.
She was among hundreds of family members who packed a Joint Base Lewis-McChord gymnasium Friday afternoon to welcome home 393 Stryker combat soldiers. It was the largest group of soldiers assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division to return thus far as the unit concludes a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan.
Cheers broke out as the divider that separated soldiers from family members slowly rose.
Unit leaders skipped the perfunctory brief remarks featured in past homecomings that delay the inevitable: a rush from opposite sides that ends with tears, long hugs and babes in arm.
Since 2004, Colter’s husband, Sgt. 1st Class David Colter, a 31-year-old infantryman, has spent 41/2 years fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The couple also barely saw each other when the noncommissioned officer served as a drill sergeant in South Carolina for two years. They transferred to Lewis-McChord in March, and he deployed two months later.
“I really haven’t had a chance to have home down time with him, and that’s what I miss,” she said while keeping an eye on their 20-month-old son, Rylan, before the troops arrived. “We can actually be a family, and we haven’t had the opportunity to do that.”
Colter and her husband say that as the U.S. military winds down its commitment in Afghanistan, they don’t know if this will be the last time he serves there.
Kelly Colter said she’s been assured her husband will be home for at least two years, unless he receives orders to transfer to another Army installation.
Added her husband: “I’d like to say ‘yes,’ but you never know. If we need to go, we’ll go and take care of the business we need to take care of.”
David Colter served in Kandahar province and said Afghan forces are “pretty close” to being able to take care of their own security.
Sgt. 1st Class James Gowers, 38, completing his third deployment, characterized the security situation as more tenuous.
“Based on the amount of help people need over there, I’m not sure if it’s over with or not,” the Puyallup resident said.
He returned to his wife, Trish, and their three children. He said the deployment was harder than others even though it was shorter because soldiers didn’t get leaves to return home and get a break from the demands of war.
The U.S. military will end its combat role in Afghanistan this year, with complete withdrawal of forces expected in 2014. The New York Times reported this week that the senior American commander there has submitted options that would keep between 6,000 and 20,000 troops beyond that to advise the Afghan military and prevent terrorist groups from expanding.
Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, commanding general of Lewis-McChord and I Corps, has said the soldiers under his command will shift their focus back to the Pacific Rim. The last remaining Stryker brigade in Afghanistan is due back in August.
The returning soldiers were primarily assigned to the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, but also included some from the brigade’s other five battalions.
The brigade lost eight soldiers during the deployment.
It was the fourth flight of returning soldiers from the brigade. There will be more than 10 additional flights before the entire brigade, numbering around 4,000 soldiers, is home in early February. The brigade’s formal welcome-home ceremony is set for Feb. 14.Christian Hill: 253-274-7390 christian.hill@ thenewstribune.com @TNTchill