Military News

After dangers of Iraq, soldiers endure long wait at Fort Lewis

FORT LEWIS, Wash. — Spc. Justin Smith of Rexburg says getting blown up in Iraq was better than sitting at Fort Lewis and waiting to get home to Idaho.

Smith, a Humvee machine gunner with Bravo Company 2-116th, was injured by a suicide bomber Oct. 23 on his last patrol in Kirkuk. He suffered cuts near his eye, a chipped tooth and second-degree burns on his hand.

"Actually, I think I would rather be in Kirkuk than sitting here doing this," he said while playing a game on his laptop computer. "We have so much time to kill here; we just have to sit around and think about how close we are to home."

Smith is among hundreds of soldiers in the 116th Brigade Combat Team who are being "processed out" of the regular Army and waiting to fly home to their lives as civilians and part-time soldiers. About 1,800 Idaho National Guard soldiers have been deployed for 18 months, the last 10 months in Iraq.

Most should be home by Thanksgiving. A few lucky soldiers have trickled back to the state in the past week or two. Many will fly to Idaho Tuesday — flight times still aren't firm — while others are still being processed by the Army and waiting their turn to come home.

And that means more standing in line in the rain to sign papers, attending debriefings and undergoing medical examinations.

When they're not processing, one thing soldiers are doing is going into nearby Tacoma to drink beer at Hooters and other bars. Soldiers did not have alcohol in Iraq.

"It's nice to be able to walk into a bar and not get kicked out," said Spc. Jacob Schenk of Twin Falls, who turned 21 in Iraq.

Other soldiers are playing poker, taking naps and working out at the gym.

And, most of all, dying to get home.

"I think guys are dealing with it really well, but it's tough," Sgt. 1st Class Hugh McKinney of Felt said. "This is a piece of cake compared to what we had to deal with in Iraq, but these guys just want to get home to be with their wives, families and loved ones."

This is the third homecoming for Spc. Steven Martindale of Filer. He served with the Marine Corps in the Gulf War and in Somalia. After those deployments, he returned to a home base with his fellow Marines.

This time, the 33-year-old has a wife, Rene, and two children, Jessica, 7, and Michael, 5, to come home to.

Some soldiers are looking for ways to get home quickly — some have gotten special permission to get a ride home with family members. But Martindale is waiting patiently for his plane to leave Tuesday.

"Everybody wants to get home, but at the same time, this is a good time to readjust," he said.

Martindale plans to ease back into family life. "I know it's going to feel a little weird," he said. "I think me and my wife have to get reacquainted again. And the kids, they're just going to be glad that Daddy is home for good."

He will take about a week off before returning to his job at Wal-Mart. He's planning a big family vacation next spring or summer.

"I promised my kids after Daddy gets back, we're going to Disney World," he said.

For Spc. Marc Ambruster of Boise, waiting for Tuesday's trip home feels like an eternity he can't bear. After getting his discharge papers Sunday, he tried to get permission to take a commercial flight to Boise.

No such luck.

How did it feel to be discharged, to have the deployment finally over?

"Like the first day I got married," Armbruster said. "It's like the happiest day of my life."