Idaho soldiers who have been in Iraq since December will come home to their families starting in early November.
Members of the Idaho Army National Guard's 116th Brigade Combat Team will return in waves to Fort Lewis, Wash., beginning in October, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said Friday. The 116th left Idaho in July 2004 for several months' training and arrived in northern Iraq in December. More than half of the 3,200 members of the brigade serving in Iraq are from Idaho.
Guard members will spend seven to 10 days going through a demobilization process at Fort Lewis before heading home to Idaho in shifts over several weeks, Kempthorne said.
The official return date comes as 116th members are working with Iraqi security and coalition force members near Kirkuk for today's Iraqi constitutional election. The 116th's mission is to help Iraqis improve security, economy, political stability and communications.
The first wave of returning soldiers will be a 296-member advance team expected at Fort Lewis on Oct. 23. A second wave of 313 mostly Idaho Guard members will follow on Oct. 30. The 116th is turning over formal authority for security in two Northern Iraq provinces on Nov. 3 to the 1st Brigade of the Army's 101st Division, which is now training with members of the 116th.
Guard family members said official word of the arrival dates is exciting and welcome news.
"Now that I have heard the date, it's better," said Jaime DeVall, who works as an administrative assistant at Gowen Field. She attended Kempthorne's Friday announcement to find out when her husband, Sgt. Brent DeVall, might be coming home.
"The last four months have been the toughest. I have no idea why," DeVall said. "I think the 'anxious' has set in."
The governor's announcement means that families can stop wondering about rumors and start planning for homecomings, said Gina Pollard, whose husband Daniel is serving with the Idaho Guard out of Twin Falls.
"I'm excited and nervous," Pollard said Friday.
Part of the Fort Lewis demobilization process will include access to counselors and determining if soldiers have any medical problems, Kempthorne said.
"They have been soldiers. They have been to war. They have changed because of this," Kempthorne said. "The families have changed and there needs to be an understanding by everyone involved."
Kempthorne encouraged Idaho families to be patient and allow the Guard members to focus on their demobilization process. That means staying away from Fort Lewis and waiting to greet soldiers when they arrive in Idaho, he said.
DeVall and Pollard said they would heed the governor's request to stay in Idaho. DeVall said she has not heard of other family members planning a trip to Washington state, she said.
"But I'm sure a few will go," she said.
DeVall said she and other members of the 116th's Charlie Company are planning a small welcome-home party for their soldiers. But other Idaho communities are expected to host larger welcome-back events, Kempthorne said.
An event called "Boise's Best: A Celebration of Thanks" is slated for sometime in January, said Tracy Hall, assistant to Boise Mayor Dave Bieter. The city is working with Idaho National Guard representatives to determine dates and details.
Kempthorne spokesman Mike Journee said plans for a statewide celebration for the soldiers' return haven't been finalized yet.
"It's something he wants to do, but it's unclear as to what that celebration will be and when it will be," Journee said.
Not all the Guard members who deployed with the 116th will see those celebrations, Kempthorne said. Ten members of the 116th have died in Iraq, three of them Idahoans.
"There have been fatalities," Kempthorne said. "They will never be forgotten in this celebration of families being reunited."
About 1,700 Idaho citizen-soldiers have served in Northern Iraq since last December. The Idaho Guard's 11th Brigade has about 3,200 members in Iraq from about 20 states. Members come from Oregon, Utah, Montana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The 116th is commanded by Brig. Gen. Alan Gayhart. The 116th Cavalry Brigade includes men and women who in their civilian roles are lawyers and police officers, state and federal employees, food-service workers and corporate executives, small-business owners and students.