Staff Sgt. Derrick Grasty squinted against the blinding light, walked down the metal steps from the passenger jet and shook hands with dignitaries at McChord Air Force Base there to greet his flight.
About 15 seconds later, reality sunk in.
The Lacey resident threw his arms skyward and let out an ear-splitting yell. A colleague from the 81st Brigade Combat Team smiled and patted Gratsy on the back. Another pumped his fist into the air.
“I just couldn’t help myself,” Gratsy said later. “It just felt too good.”
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He and hundreds of others had good reason to celebrate Wednesday: The first group of the 81st Brigade, about 150 Washington National Guard soldiers, returned home from an 11-month mobilization to Iraq.
The brigade of 3,500 soldiers – about 2,400 of whom are from Washington – served across Iraq. Most of the soldiers guarded contractor-driven supply convoys that delivered water, fuel and other supplies to American military bases. Other units of the 81st Brigade were tasked with running daily operations of bases, performing base-defense patrols and providing personal security detail.
For most of the soldiers, that meant 11 months of dodging roadside bombs and making middle-of-the-night phone calls to loved ones. For their families, the mobilization was 11 months of frayed nerves and handling all the chores back home.
The brigade mobilized Aug. 18, 2008, its second in support of the Iraq war. It trained in Yakima, Wisconsin and Kuwait before arriving in Iraq in late October.
The remainder of the brigade is expected to arrive home over the next two weeks.
Before returning home, the soldiers are stopping at Fort McCoy, Wis., where they receive a week of medical checkups and briefings about pay, benefits and the transition back into civilian life.
Gov. Chris Gregoire, state adjutant general Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg and other military officials greeted the soldiers as they stepped off the plane. A 20-minute bus ride to Wilson Gym on North Fort Lewis followed.
“There was no AC on the bus, and we felt like we were melting,” Gratsy said. “But I don’t think anyone cared.”
Inside the gym, hundreds of family members and colleagues crammed bleachers, with even more people lined up against the walls. A curtain split the gymnasium floor in two; the soldiers, most of whom serve in the brigade’s headquarters company, marched in formation behind it.
The curtain slowly lifted, with the rising chorus of cheers drowning out the music from the brass band. Brigade commander Col. Ronald Kapral led a march across the gym floor and called his troops to attention.
Staff Sgt. Francisco Velez spotted his family in the stands, waving Batman signs. The Port Orchard man is a huge fan of the comic book character and has a tattoo of the symbol. His family knew he’d spot the logo right away, his wife, Heather, said.
Velez also saw his 7-year-old son, Francisco IV, wearing a miniature Army uniform just like Dad’s, complete with nametape and unit patches.
“I almost lost my military bearings during the national anthem,” said Velez, 33. “I saw my son up there in the uniform. It was a lot to see all at once.”
Gregoire and Lowenberg each delivered short speeches and paid homage to the brigade’s lone fatality on its deployment: Spc. Samuel D. Stone of Port Orchard, who was killed May 30 when his M1117 Armored Security Vehicle rolled during a convoy mission outside Tallil. The accident occurred less than two weeks before Stone’s 21st birthday.
Gregoire visited members of the brigade earlier this year, an event she had previously called one of the most memorable of her governorship.
“Thank you for your amazing courage,” she said Wednesday. “You have made us proud. You have made America safer. You have made the world better.”
The brigade then uncased its colors, and a mad scramble followed as soldiers and family members pushed their way through the crowd to find one another. Grasty picked up his 3-year-old daughter, Braedyn, and held her close as tears ran down his face.
Maj. Doug Lineberry just had to look for the sea of red T-shirts. Twenty of his family members and close friends wore the bright red shirts, customized to include his name. Lineberry, a Gig Harbor resident and the brigade’s judge advocate, dropped to both knees and scooped up his daughters, 4-year-old Anna and 3-year-old Emily.
“It’s been a tough year, and the girls have missed him,” said his wife, Jeanette. “But we wouldn’t have it any other way. He went to serve his country, and we’re so proud of him.”
Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758