FORT LEWIS, Wash. — Sgt. Thomas Green of Emmett said the first thing he noticed after stepping off the plane was the pine-scented air of the soggy Puget Sound, instead of the stench of garbage in the streets of Kirkuk. He also saw cars moving in orderly lines on Interstate 5 without their drivers worrying about the roadside bombs, a constant hazard the soldiers faced in Iraq.
"It's the best feeling I think I've ever had in my life," Green said Sunday morning after flying through the night from Kuwait and three days of travel from Kirkuk, Iraq.
Green walked off the plane arm in arm with Sgt. Kevin Wolf of Nampa.
"We've been attached at the hip since we mobilized," Wolf said.
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Thomas and Wolf were among 302 Army National Guard soldiers returning from nearly a year in Iraq.
The soldiers are part of the first wave of the 4,300 men and women with the 116th Brigade Combat Team, including about 1,800 Idahoans, who are winding down an 18-month deployment that took them to training in Texas, Louisiana and Kuwait. They had been in Iraq since December.
Col. Guy Thomas of Boise, who was the first soldier off the plane, called the experience in Iraq “a great adventure.”
The highlight? “The whole thing,” Thomas said.
The 116th Brigade Combat Team had just helped secure Kirkuk for Iraq’s recent constitutional election, he said, and the brigade arrived weeks before Iraq held its first election in January.
“It’s remarkable to see the country go through the growth steps,” Thomas said.
The first group of returning 116th soldiers will help prepare for the rest of the brigade’s arrival this month and next month in Fort Lewis, where they will be demobilized from active-duty status and return to being part-time soldiers or be discharged.
Most of the remaining brigade members are expected to arrive at Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, within the next few weeks. The soldiers will spend about a week there before returning to their home states.
Soldiers will undergo medical evaluations and psychological screenings for post-traumatic stress disorder and get counseling on reintegrating with families. They also will learn about veterans benefits available to them.
Some of the soldiers who arrived in Washington on Sunday are expected to return to Idaho in about a week; others will stay to help as other troops return. Maj. Gen.
Larry Lafrenz, commander of the Idaho National Guard, expects nearly all of the troops will be home by Thanksgiving. “We would certainly hope so,” he said. Lafrenz was among several Idaho Guardsmen who flew Sunday to greet the troops as they arrived back in the United States. The National Guard had asked families not to travel to Fort Lewis, saying they want the soldiers to get through the demobilization process as quickly as possible.
At a ceremony in a gymnasium at Fort Lewis, an Army band played while the green camouflage-clad Guard members who remained in Idaho welcomed back the Iraq war veterans in desert camo.
“It’s absolutely beautiful to see you home,” Lafrenz said. “I want to thank every one of you for your dedication, professionalism and your support for your country and your states.”
A week in Fort Lewis will be the last leg before most soldiers return home, where they will get reacquainted with their families and begin the transition back to being spouses, parents and employees, rather than full-time soldiers.
“My biggest concern is getting my life back together with my wife and kids,” Master Sgt. Anthony Glenn of Boise said.
His family is planning two weeks in Las Vegas after he returns home, Glenn said.
Capt. Tanya Moye of Weiser said the first thing she’s going to do when she gets home is to play with her 2›-year-old son, Jeremy, who stayed with Moye’s father during her 18-month deployment. Shortly after returning home, Moye will have to look for a job. The company she worked for, Watermark, was sold while she was deployed, so she can’t return to her old position.
Most soldiers plan to take several weeks of leave after returning home, then start to resume their normal lives.
Lafrenz said Idahoans should allow the returning soldiers some time to adjust to civilian life.
“Local townspeople and employers have to understand soldiers are going to be a little different from when they left,” he said.
To offer story ideas or comments, contact reporter Roger Phillips at email@example.com or 373-6615.