| FORT LEWIS, Wash., Aug. 31, 2007 Theres a sense of giddiness here as families prepare for their Arrowhead Brigade Strykers to return home after a 15-month deployment to Iraq.
An advance party from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team) is slated to arrive at neighboring McChord Air Force Base on Sept. 3, finalizing groundwork for almost 4,000 more troops to fly in beginning Sept. 11.
Jubilant and frequently tearful reunions will play out again and again over the next week to 10 days, as one plane after another touches down to bring the full brigade home.
Melissa Townsend, wife of Col. Steve Townsend, the brigade commander, reports that the families are ready and counting the days.
After a particularly challenging deployment marred by 54 casualties and the announcement in April of a three-month extension Townsend said families are on the edge of their seats waiting for the homecoming celebration to begin.
Theyve painted colorful welcome-home banners to decorate the route between McChord and Fort Lewis, as well as the Sheridan Gym, where families will reunite with their soldiers.
Earlier this week, the brigades rear detachment and family support network sponsored the last of several redeployment seminars to help prepare families for the adjustments theyll go through during redeployment.
And to make sure its single soldiers feel welcome, too, several of the brigade wives got together last week to make more than 200 beds for troops whose barracks rooms have been vacant for more than a year. After they finished tucking in the corners and smoothing the sheets, the wives assembled care packages of toiletries and goodies to place in each room to greet the returning soldiers.
You wouldnt think youd be able to get so excited about making a bed, Townsend said. But thats because its tangible. Its an assurance that, yes, they are coming back.
Townsend called the welcome-home preparations a big relief after a long, lonely and, for many families, difficult summer as their loved ones led surge operations in and around Baghdad.
Its a sign that theres light at the end of the tunnel, she said. We can actually almost sigh.
Maj. Kyle Marsh, who returned from Iraq in May to serve as the brigades rear detachment commander, said hes excited about the homecoming thats in store for his fellow Strykers.
As they step off the plane at McChord, the Fort Lewis audiovisual staff will beam live images to the families assembled at the Fort Lewis gym. Meanwhile, audio from the gym will blare over the airfield. Well have a camera at the bottom of the stairs and a speaker set up at the airfield so soldiers can hear everything going on at the gym, Marsh said.
The biggest thrill, he said, will be watching the soldiers reunite with their families. Every soldier will be in tears. I know. I did this. They will be bawling, he said.
Marsh remembered his own experience reuniting with his family. You come into the gym, you look around and you cant find them. And then you make eye contact, he said. Your heart is beating a thousand miles an hour. Its absolutely awesome.
The emotion hits everyone who comes to welcome the troops home, said Darlene Pacheco, the brigades full-time family assistance advisor. Even if its not your soldier coming back that day, you get caught up in the excitement, she said.
As the troops return, Fort Lewis is planning its big official homecoming celebration, slated for Oct. 11. Thats when the brigade will form up and uncase the unit colors. Afterward, its members will be treated to a big barbecue, courtesy of the local community.
Townsend, the brigade commander, will send invitations to the brigades wounded troops, recovering here and at other medical facilities around the country. Weve had a lot of wounded, a lot, said Marsh. And he wants to give them a personal invitation to be a part of the welcome home.
If the kids at Walter Reed (Army Medical Center in Washington) and amputees at Brooke (Army Medical Center in San Antonio) are ambulatory and able to move, they are going to get an invitation, he said. We would love to have them there.
Marsh anticipated the emotion that will overcome the brigade when its wounded warriors join the troops they served with in Iraq. After the newly returned soldiers form up on the parade field, the commander of troops will turn around and tell Townsend, Sir, the command is formed.
Townsend will respond, No its not, as we have several of our brothers who need to rejoin our formations.
At that point, the wounded troops will join the formation. Maybe theyll go out in a wheelchair. Maybe theyll go out in a hospital bed, Marsh said. The sergeant major said, Hey, if I have a kid who cant stand, Ill put him in a chair next to the formation and he can sit there.
Talk about powerful, Marsh said. That will be huge.
Family time and reintegrating back into the community will be the big focus for the troops until they take block leave during the holidays, Marsh said. Rear detachment soldiers will take care of the never-ending taskings to give the newly returned troops a chance to rejuvenate.
Thats critical, Marsh said, because after they return from block leave, theyll be back to the same demanding training routine they left behind. Once they come back in January, guess what? he said. Were right back at it again, getting ready for the next time we go back to Iraq.