Ann Mora and Misty Bauer carried a heavy weight when they awoke early Wednesday to attend a homecoming celebration for their husbands' artillery battalion.
The soldiers, just back from a year in Afghanistan, wanted to help them lift it.
The women’s husbands – Staff Sgt. Conrad Mora and Spc. Joseph Bauer – were killed July 24 by a roadside bomb. The blast also killed two of their comrades, Sgt. Daniel Lim and Spc. Andrew Hand.
Ann Mora and Misty Bauer stood in for their husbands as the battalion came home Wednesday morning. They joined hundreds of other family members in a gym at Joint Base Lewis-McChord to welcome part of the 5th Battalion, 3rd Artillery Regiment of the 17th Fires Brigade.
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The two widows held urns that contained their husbands’ ashes. Some soldiers paused to kneel in front of them, quietly touching the urns and whispering to Ann Mora and Misty Bauer.
“He’s still part of the unit,” said Bauer, 25. “I’m very happy that they’re returning, but it just breaks my heart that he’s not.”
Their tears contrasted with a buoyant mood at the homecoming – one of several such gatherings this year as a wave of returning soldiers has slowed to a trickle.
Soldiers grabbed their spouses for long kisses. They held the children they’ve missed and grinned as they looked ahead to a month of hard-earned downtime.
“She’s huge,” said Spc. Anthony Robertson, 22, taking in a full look at his 15-month-old daughter. “I know she’s walking already, and that boggles my mind.”
Elements of the 17th Fires went six different ways last year. Most of the brigade’s artillerymen went to Basra, Iraq, and returned home in August.
One battalion, with 280 artillerymen, was sent to Afghanistan, where it protected airfields and cleared roads of deadly bombs. It was split into two batteries and further splintered into smaller missions around Afghanistan.
The last 130 soldiers from the Afghanistan contingent arrived home Wednesday morning.
“They sacrificed more than anybody,” Col. Steven Bullimore, the brigade’s commander, said in a brief speech to the soldiers. “They lived harder. They lived more dangerously. They risked more, and they left four of their brothers on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Their job every day was to go out and hunt the ones who were hunting them.”
Just-returned soldiers described 20-hour days searching roads for improvised explosives. They said they felt good about their work but were relieved to be home.
“It’s a very dangerous job, a game of cat and mouse. I’m just glad to be done,” said Sgt. Mark Eddy, 27, holding his son, K.C. Stroop, 6. “It seems like a dream.”
Some soldiers sought out the families of their four fallen comrades, who were the only fatalities in the battalion.
They also were the last of Lewis-McChord’s 44 soldiers who have died in Afghanistan since August 2009.
“I’m glad the spouses are here. It gives us some closure as well,” Sgt. 1st Class Cesar Zertuche said.
Misty Bauer was happy to talk about her husband, Joseph, 27. They’re both from Cincinnati. She lives on the base and draws on support from the brigade.
“My husband’s a hero, and I don’t want people to forget the sacrifices he made,” she said. “It makes me feel good that they appreciate his sacrifice.”
Ann Mora, 23, lives in DuPont and remains close with soldiers from the 17th Fires. She wore a T-shirt that showed Conrad Mora, 24, superimposed over the San Diego skyline. They were married there in 2007.
“He’s always really goofy. I love him. He brightens my day,” she said.
She often carries his urn.
“I take him everywhere still. It helps me. I talk to him,” she said.
Staff Sgt. Christopher Nelson, 39, of Puyallup, held Mora’s 2-year-old son, Christopher, for most of the homecoming ceremony. He and Conrad Mora became friends quickly when the Moras moved to Lewis-McChord. Ann Mora asked him to escort her husband’s body home from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
“When the news hit, I lost it,” Nelson said. He helps out Ann Mora from time to time by taking care of her son.
“We are all tight,” he said. “We know this is forever.”