Joint Base Lewis-McChord - On his 26th birthday, Spc. Benjamin Breckheimer had another reason to celebrate.
He was among the hundreds who gathered Thursday morning to welcome home his Stryker unit, the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, after a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan
The brigade’s 4,000 soldiers started trickling home, plane by plane, several weeks ago, but this was the first time they were all safely back home together.
Breckheimer wore a metal frame on his shattered right leg.
“It’s good to see these guys,” said the cavalry scout from Wisconsin, who had both legs injured in a roadside bomb explosion two months into his tour. “I’ve been separated from them for the last 10 months. I was the last in my troop to get hurt, and I’m happy for that, that no one else got hurt, because it’s really hard.”
His brigade was the first of the Army’s seven Stryker units to deploy to Afghanistan. It had been slated to go to Iraq, but received new orders late in its training to be part of the buildup of additional troops as violence was increasing in Afghanistan.
Two other local brigades, the 3rd and 4th Stryker teams, were sent to Iraq last summer, which means two more major homecoming ceremonies will follow in the next several weeks as Lewis-McChord refills with soldiers and their families.
Col. Harry Tunnell IV, who commanded the 5th brigade, praised his soldiers’ performance in taking the fight to the Taliban and improving security for the civilian population across five southern Afghanistan provinces.
“We lived up to our motto to strike and destroy our nation’s enemy to the American people in response to the contemptible attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” Tunnell told the soldiers standing in formation on the main parade ground.
It proved a difficult adjustment and tough mission. Thirty-seven soldiers died during the deployment, and 239 others were wounded.
Tunnell said before the ceremony that most of the casualties were absorbed as the brigade went into areas “infested with Taliban” that had not seen a large coalition force to that point. He said security stabilized as his troops better understood the environment, including its language and culture, and gathered good intelligence on the enemy.
Staff Sgt. David Thornton, a 28-year-old combat engineer, said the deployment was much more difficult than his tour in Iraq. His job was to clear roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices. In Iraq, he focused on roads, but he said the presence of the enemy and IEDS was more pervasive this time.
“In Afghanistan, you never know what you’re going to get,” he said after the ceremony. “The terrain was a lot worse. Our equipment was never designed for that type of terrain. The Stryker (vehicle) does great on that terrain, but it can’t handle IEDS like the MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles) can, in my opinion.”
During the ceremony, applause followed wounded soldiers as they rejoined their comrades with the aid of wheelchairs, crutches, canes and prostheses. Some soldiers were flown in from Walter Reed and Brooke army medical centers, where they continue to receive treatment. More than 90 injured soldiers attended the ceremony.
Family members of the fallen soldiers also were recognized in remarks by commanders and applause by the audience.
A brigade soldier received the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest honor for valor in combat. Sgt. Jarrett Brown, an assistant gunner, was recognized for his actions when his unit came under attack in the Arghandab River Valley on Aug. 24.
Brown exposed himself to heavy enemy fire three times in an effort to slow the enemy’s advance and drag his assistant gunner, who was suffering from extreme heat exhaustion, to safety, according to the award citation. He was unavailable for interviews.
The brigade also received a new commander – Col. Barry Huggins – and a new name – the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division – during the ceremony. Huggins, who previously served as an executive officer and battalion commander for the Lewis-McChord 3rd Brigade, took over from Tunnell.
Two mothers expressed frustration that their sons were unable to attend the welcome-home event.
Judy Schulz and her husband drove 2,400 miles from Tennessee to pick up their 20-year-old son, Spc. Daniel Schulz. He was unable to attend because he had to complete paperwork and screenings before the Army would release him on monthlong block leave.
Schulz said her son told her about 200 other soldiers were in the same situation. Schulz said her son returned July 13 and remarked that his outprocessing should have been taken care of earlier.
Maj. Kathleen Turner, an I Corps spokeswoman, said it was unfortunate but necessary as soldiers were squeezed through a limited number of modules this week in an effort to get their leave started by this weekend.
Turner said soldiers will have other chances, such as military balls, to be welcomed and thanked for their service.