Monday, October 29, 2007

Think Thanksgiving

As some Alaska families say their tearful goodbyes, others look forward to a homecoming by Thanksgiving

Published: October 24, 2007
Anchorage Daily News

That's when most of the 3,500 paratroopers of the 4th Airborne Brigade Combat Team -- stationed in Iraq for more than a year -- should begin returning to Anchorage, a Fort Richardson spokesman said Tuesday.

While no dates or times have yet been set, the entire brigade is expected to return in three phases, arriving here between early November and mid-December, according to Capt. Chris Hyde.

"With a brigade, it doesn't exactly move on a dime," Hyde said Tuesday.

While Fort Rich is preparing to welcome soldiers home, Alaska Army National Guard families this week are saying goodbye.

The guardsmen will patrol at a forward operations base and protect convoys, according to McHugh Pierre, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Among the Fort Rich paratroopers scheduled to return to Anchorage next month, the first to arrive in about two weeks will be a small advance "torch party," about 200 to 300 soldiers, who'll prepare Fort Rich for the brigade's homecoming, Hyde said.

Then the core of the unit -- about 3,000 troops -- will begin arriving home around the third week of November in a long process that will take a week to 10 days.

They'll depart from Kuwait and arrive in Anchorage in single planeloads carrying about 300 troops a day. Some days 600 soldiers might arrive.

"I would say the bulk of the 4th Brigade should be back by the very latest by the first week of December," Hyde said.

Finally, a third group of about 200 to 300 soldiers -- a contingent of sweepers responsible for getting all of the brigade's planes, vehicles and gear loaded on ships at the debarkation point in Kuwait -- should return to Fort Rich by mid-December, thus completing the brigade's 15-month deployment.

Oftentimes the mission was fraught with peril for the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division -- a unit that was created at Fort Rich in 2005 and deployed to Iraq in September 2006.

On a single day in January, eight of the brigade's paratroopers lost their lives when four soldiers were killed by ambush and four more by a roadside bomb.

They'd been patrolling dangerous areas south and west of Baghdad as part of the brigade's overall mission to work with Iraqi security forces to deter sectarian violence and defeat terrorists and insurgents.

As of this week, 53 brigade members had lost their lives in Iraq. About 350 more had been wounded.

In recent months, however, the U.S. fatality rate in Iraq had fallen and the overall security picture had improved, partly due to the 2007 surge in troop levels, according to Col. Michael Garrett, the brigade commander.

"We really have benefitted greatly from the surge," Garrett said during an Oct. 10 teleconference with Alaska journalists. "Progress in security has led to progress in governance and infrastructure.

"What has happened over the past couple of months has made me more optimistic as I look toward the future of our mission and the unit that will follow us."

Looking forward to the brigade's return to Alaska, Garrett said the Army wants to identify "high-risk soldiers" who might need psychological care after they get back home. A welcoming-home ceremony for the brigade will probably be staged on base in mid-December, Hyde said. Then most of the troops will depart the base on a one-month-long "block leave" of absence for rest and relaxation with their families.

In late January, they'll resume duty at Fort Rich -- at least through the conclusion of the brigade's first "three-year life cycle," which ends in May. Some soldiers with longer enlistments or those who choose to re-enlist will remain with the brigade after that, as new soldiers begin to arrive at mid-year.

The earliest the 4th Brigade could be redeployed in Iraq would be December 2008, Hyde said. It's also possible that the Pentagon would want the brigade's second generation to train together for 12 months first, in which case a second deployment might not occur before May 2009.

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