Families together again

Paul and Janine Barboza of Yelm had it all planned out. The staff sergeant would be home from his second deployment to Iraq in time to reacquaint with his two children and be present for the delivery of their third.

But when the Army extended by three months the tour of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team), as well as other active-duty units serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the expectant mother found herself in an unenviable position.

"Doing the pregnancy thing with two other kids by yourself is very hard," she said Tuesday.

In ways both large and small, the extended tour

the longest by a Fort Lewis brigade in Iraq

has placed additional stress on thousands of military families living in South Sound.

So it was with great joy that family members marked the beginning of the end of the deployment with Tuesday's arrival of the brigade's advance party.

The 140 soldiers will ensure preparations are complete for the return of the brigade's 3,600 soldiers after 15 months in combat. The majority of the soldiers are scheduled to begin arriving on separate flights in a week or so.

About 200 family members erupted in a cheers and screams as the returning soldiers marched into a gymnasium Tuesday afternoon festooned with colorful signs and a huge U.S flag hanging from one wall. After brief remarks from a post commander, the soldiers were dismissed, and family members raced for the long-awaited reunion punctuated with long kisses and hugs, and tears of joy and relief.

The extra three months away from home was as tough for the soldiers as the families.

"I just couldn't wait to get here," Staff Sgt. Paul Barboza, a mechanic assigned to the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, said as he cradled in his arms for the first time his 2-month-old daughter, Hannah, his wife close by. "I'm glad it's over. I just want to go ahead and enjoy my time home now."

The brigade had deployed for its second yearlong tour to Iraq last summer. In April, however, the Army announced it would extend tours in Afghanistan and Iraq by three months to ensure its forces

strained by the demands of the two ongoing wars

receive at least a year at home before being deployed again.

"This is our first brigade-sized element to come back after fifteen months," said Joe Piek, a spokesman for the Army post.

The family of Spc. Frankie Paulino, assigned to the 296th Brigade Support Battalion, learned Monday night he would be among the soldiers on that first official flight. So they decorated signs and gathered as many family members as possible. More than a dozen from Lacey turned out for the homecoming.

"We know he'd be OK," said Ann Meno, his aunt. "We've got a lot of people praying for him."

But those prayers won't be silenced just yet. Two more of her nephews serve with the brigade and are expected back in coming weeks.

"We'll be back again," Meno said.

Sgt. Douglas Wagner, an intelligence analyst assigned to 1-23, returned in time for his child's second birthday Saturday.

Echoing the sentiments of other soldiers, he said Iraq is in better shape now than when his brigade first arrived. The brigade played a key role in working alongside Iraqi security forces to quell the insurgency and sectarian violence as leaders worked toward political reconciliation.

A day after President Bush raised the possibility of a future drawdown of U.S. troop levels based on what he said was an improving security situation, a report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office concluded there has been little political progress by Iraqis.

Having served on the front lines, Wagner said he's witnessed progress in Iraq as a whole.

"We're actually getting stuff done. ... We are doing good things over there for the people," he said.

How much political and military progress is made in Iraq in the next few months may well determine if family members must bid farewell to this brigade for a third time in a year or so.

Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or at