The long, tough fight is over. The 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team) ended its second deployment to Iraq on Thursday during a welcome-home ceremony at which it celebrated the service of its 3,600 soldiers and their families and remembered its fallen.
Several soldiers who served in both deployments, in 2003-04 and 2006-07, said the second tour was more difficult and dangerous. Col. Stephen Townsend, commander of the Arrowhead Brigade, echoed that sentiment when he began his remarks by listing just a few of the battlefields where he said his soldiers fought and bled.
Townsend said the brigade defeated the enemy and brought calm and stability to those areas with speed, incredible skill, quiet professionalism and awesome courage.
"I am as proud of these soldiers in front of you as anything I've been associated with in my life," he said. "I know you are all just as proud of them."
Hundreds of family members cheered after the brigade and its battalions uncased their colors, signifying the official end of the deployment, at Gray Army Airfield.
The unit is the first Fort Lewis brigade to complete a 15-month deployment in Iraq and the first Stryker brigade to finish two tours there. The brigades, featuring the eight-wheeled armored Stryker vehicles, were developed to be faster than units with tanks but more lethal and better armored than light infantry units.
Another Fort Lewis-based combat unit, the 4th Brigade Stryker Combat Team, continues to serve in Iraq and is expected home this summer.
Townsend said "our purpose today is a more joyful one" than on Wednesday, when soldiers and families gathered at a somber ceremony unveiling a memorial to honor the brigade's fallen soldiers. Forty-eight brigade soldiers died during the most recent deployment, more than twice as many as during the brigade's first tour in Iraq. More than 600 soldiers were wounded during the most recent trip.
Thursday's ceremony was not devoid of poignant moments.
The first came when more than 50 injured soldiers, some on crutches and in wheelchairs, rejoined their units from the crowd to much applause. Some who attended are being treated at Army hospitals in other states.
Sgt. Michael Kohler, a 23-year-old infantryman, said after the ceremony that it was great to reunite with the soldiers he was forced to leave behind. On Jan. 27, the detonation of an explosive-formed penatrator
the more lethal successor of sorts to the improvised explosive devices that have killed many soldiers
nearly cost him his left leg and might still force him out of the Army.
"It's a heavy burden to carry to be back here while all the soldiers you're in charge of are still in the fight," he said, leaning on crutches, his leg heavily bandaged.
He said his six months in Iraq taught him that the enemy had become smarter. During his first deployment, the insurgency didn't have the capability to blow up an armored Stryker, he said. This time, that was a real threat.
"It brought a whole new level to everything," he said.
Late in the ceremony, seven soldiers assigned to the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment were presented with the Silver Star, the third-highest military decoration for valor. One accepted the award on behalf of the family of Sgt. Jason Harkins, who was killed in combat May 6.
The soldiers were honored for their actions that occurred after the infantry battalion was ordered to Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, in March to reinforce a brigade from the 1st Cavalry Division to fight in an al-Qaida stronghold.
"For the next 90 days, the Regulars (the battalion's nickname) fought in the most violent city in Iraq, regaining control of more than one-third of the city and setting conditions for the complete liberation of the city later," according to the brigade's official history that was distributed at the ceremony.
In June, the brigade rejoined the battalion and launched Operation Arrowhead Ripper to destroy the enemy, which had proclaimed Baqouba as the capital for the Islamic State of Iraq.
The brigade, minus two infantry battalions, had arrived in Mosul shortly after it deployed in June 2006. In November, it was ordered to move to Baghdad and serve as a strike force for higher headquarters.
During six months in the capital, it conducted 10 brigade-level operations, 15 battalion-level operations and nearly four dozen company-level operations, all targeted at enemy strongholds, the history says.
Its work done, the soldiers can turn their thoughts to home.
Sarah Rojas, 21, didn't mince words when asked about the conclusion of a deployment that separated her from her husband, Oscar, a specialist, for 15 months.
"I'm glad it's over," she said. "The end."
Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or email@example.com.