JBLM brigade’s homecoming has the feeling of finality to it

Capt. Trevor Roberts had his eyes on his newborn daughter from 7,000 miles away for the past two months, using an Internet connection to watch her birth and stay in touch with her mom while he finished an Army deployment to Afghanistan.

On Sunday, he finally got his arms around daughter Adaleigh.

“It feels amazing. Words cannot describe it,” Roberts, 29, said while he cradled the baby in a crowded helicopter hangar decked out with “Welcome Home” banners for Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers in the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade.

Their reunion looked like a thousand others at JBLM in the 13 years the Army has been sending soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan, from the spouses dressed up to make an impression to the affectionate banners with signs reading “Your Mrs. needs kisses.”

But it was different in one big way: The homecoming put a bookend to the final large-scale deployment of a JBLM combat brigade to America’s longest war.

That war isn’t over, and some small JBLM units could still be sent to Afghanistan in the next couple of years. But the days of sending groups of a thousand soldiers or more at a time to that conflict are finished for JBLM now that its main helicopter headquarters is home.

“It closes a chapter” for the base, said 7th Infantry Division Commander Maj. Gen. Terry Ferrell.

The story of JBLM’s role in Afghanistan started in the war’s earliest days, when soldiers in its 1st Forces Group hit the ground in the initial attack on the Taliban. Since then, more than 2,200 U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan. One hundred and seven died serving with JBLM units, including the war’s first casualty, Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Chapman.

The base’s largest deployments to Afghanistan took place in 2012, when it sent all three of its 4,500-soldier Stryker brigades to that war, along with its I Corps headquarters, Special Operations units and a number of support elements.

Now the war is heading into a different phase under Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani. Fewer than 10,000 U.S. military service members are expected to be in Afghanistan by the end of this year, with smaller numbers in coming years.

“We gave space for our Afghan partners to grow and train,” said Col. Paul Mele, the aviation brigade’s commander. “They have truly taken the lead” in fighting against insurgents.

Mele led about 1,200 local soldiers in Afghanistan beginning in March. They protected ground troops with attack helicopters, gathered intelligence from the air, moved soldiers around the rugged country, and helped shut down forward bases as the U.S. military carried out its drawdown.

Soldiers from the aviation brigade have been coming home in waves since September. About 100 of them, mostly from the brigade headquarters, came home Sunday.

“We’re done. It’s good to be home,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Stephen Tillman.

The aviation brigade returned at a moment when the Defense Department has large numbers of troops in Iraq, Iraq’s neighbors in the Middle East, West Africa and the tail end of its commitment to Afghanistan. JBLM has at least a small presence in all of those assignments, as well as a growing role in Pacific operations.

The last Afghanistan deployment “was a special one,” said Command Chief Warrant Officer Rex Finley, who felt proud of the brigade’s performance in helping to manage the drawdown.

His family has lost track of how many times the veteran pilot has gone to war. Maybe five? Or was it six, guessed his 18-year-old daughter, Grace.

She and her three siblings kept their mom, Natalie, busy during their dad’s deployment. Her younger sister, Evalyn, couldn’t sit still while she waited for the hangar gate to lift and reveal her dad.

“Daddy’s home! Daddy’s home!” Evalyn said as she twirled an American flag.

She has a full schedule for her dad to catch him up on the moments he has missed since March.

“It was a fantastic opportunity” to serve near the end of the Afghanistan War, Finley said.

“I loved the opportunity. I missed the family,” he said.