Staff Sgt. Justin Hill spent two tough tours in Iraq. The first deployment felt like a year in the Wild West. The insurgency was at a full boil when he returned two years later.
And as 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division prepares for its third Iraq tour, and the 26-year-old Fort Lewis soldier wants to find out if all the effort, the time away from family and the loss of buddies on the battlefield were worth it.
“Everything you do takes time, and I want to see all the hard work we put in pay off,” said Hill, a platoon sergeant from Texas. “The Iraqis want to take over their own situation. That’s cool. That’s understandable. We’ve come this far, but we need to help them get all the way there.”
The brigade of about 4,000 soldiers cased its colors during a departure ceremony Friday at Watkins Field in preparation for its third Iraq tour. Hill, who has served with the same company since the first deployment, will serve as a platoon sergeant in Diyala province, an area in the country’s east where his brigade has history.
The deployment is the second of three Stryker brigade departures this year that will effectively halve the 30,000-soldier population of Fort Lewis. The 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division left last month for Afghanistan, bolstering the struggling war effort in South Asia and becoming the first Stryker brigade sent there.
About 4,000 more soldiers from 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division will leave in September for Iraq, where it is scheduled to be the final American combat brigade sent to the country.
Additional deployments will be limited to support and training units, according to an agreement between Baghdad and Washington.
That same agreement has also curtailed the ability of American troops to act on their own inside Iraqi cities and towns. Brigade commander Col. David Funk said the brigade will help train Iraqi forces and will perform joint missions.
“What we’re not doing is unilateral missions,” he said. “We’re not doing cordons and searches and raids like we used to do. We’ll only do that with the Iraqi security forces.”
But that doesn’t necessarily translate to less time on missions, Funk said. And 3rd Brigade, which is the first Stryker brigade to be deployed three times to Iraq, has plenty of experience.
The brigade left for Iraq in November 2003, just months after the invasion, and event- ually established its headquarters in the northern city of Mosul. Twenty of its soldiers were killed
It returned to Iraq in June 2006 for what was originally a yearlong deployment to Mosul. They were later sent to Baghdad, saw their tour extended to 15 months and used as a strike force to attack in some of the country’s toughest areas. The entire brigade served in Baqouba in Diyala province, where they drove al-Qaida in Iraq from what the group called the capital of its new Islamic republic. Forty-eight soldiers died on the deployment.
Violence across Iraq has dropped dramatically since the brigade was last in Iraq, and the American military is accepting more of an advisory role. Funk, who acknowledged the deployment was likely his brigade’s last to Iraq, said his unit will help bring this phase of the war to “a satisfying close.”
“The battlefield successes we have enjoyed in the past have not come without price – a price paid in blood by so many who have gone before us, many of whom are our brothers and sisters,” he said. “For each one of them we have laid to rest, we have mourned. But we have also made a solemn vow, that their lives shall not have been in vain. We will finish the job.”
Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758