By Colleen Flaherty
Fort Hood Herald
All but a handful of the more than 3,000 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment troopers who deployed to Iraq last August are now home.
The tour was the regiment's fourth and last to the country.
Most soldiers were welcomed at ceremonies throughout the month in a white tent erected on the regiment's parade field, to the wild cheers of friends and family and a deejay's upbeat music.
Kristen Alvarez, 26, wasn't taking any chances of missing her husband, Spc. T.J. Alvarez, Howitzer Battery, Thunder Squadron, in the happy chaos of the tent during an Aug. 17 ceremony.
Prior to arriving, she'd crafted a giant, glow-in-the-dark sign with the name "Alvarez," so that T.J. could scout out her position in the bleachers right away.
Despite having raised their son, Andrew, 15 months, as a single parent during the last year, she said, the final days of the deployment were the hardest. T.J.'s flight was rescheduled twice, putting him back at Fort Hood almost a week later than originally planned.
"Oh, I cried a lot," she said, beaming under the weight of her sign before the ceremony. "I started to wonder if he was ever going to get home."
Finally on schedule, T.J. and 185 other mounted riflemen and women began to stream into the tent behind Col. Reginald Allen, regimental commander, who also returned on one of the unit's last main body flights out of Iraq.
"You have just a done a fantastic job," Allen told the soldiers who filed into formation behind him.
At a time of transition in the Iraq conflict, he continued, the 3rd Armored Cavalry was tasked with aiding security in five of the country's most sensitive provinces south of Baghdad, including Karbala and Najaf, and maintained a high operational tempo.
The regiment completed 12,000 patrols, trained 14,000 Iraqis and actively supported State Department provincial reconstruction teams that built schools and greenhouses and provided grants to small businesses, the commander said.
The regiment also assisted in the first prosecution at a provincial level for crimes against Americans.
Turning his attention to the crowd, Allen said, "I couldn't be more proud of them, and you should be proud, as well."
Seconds after Allen dismissed T.J. and his fellow troopers, Kristen's giant sign fell from above the sea of people, signaling their reunion.
"I spotted her right away," T.J., 33, said between embraces with Kristen, Andrew and his mother, Yoly Nizzi of San Antonio.
T.J. said he felt "relief" at finally being home, and holding his young son and wife instead of talking to them through Skype.
This deployment, T.J.'s second, was much harder than his first, he said. With a family of his own waiting for him, "I couldn't get out fast enough."
Yoly, 62, a lifelong military spouse, wiped tears from her eyes as she watched her son with Kristen and Andrew.
"Every homecoming is a blessing," she said.
Fourth and final time
The third Armored Cavalry Regiment deployed to Iraq late last summer to advise and assist Iraqi security forces.
The regiment was the first to enter the country in support of Operation New Dawn, the official end of combat there. In accordance with force cap numbers associated with New Dawn, deployed regimental troop levels fluctuated between 3,100 and 3,700 during the year.
Doing its part to support the standing Dec. 31 deadline for American withdrawal from the country, the regiment reduced its initial footprint in southern Iraq from seven bases to three, closing four bases ahead of schedule.
The mission was not without its difficulties, however, Allen said, after greeting his own two, young children and wife, Ingrid.
Although U.S. and Iraqi forces recognized the end of combat, their enemies - including the Iranian-backed militias that "went on offensive" towards the end of the unit's time in country - did not, he said.
Fifteen soldiers died.
Despite the complexity that surrounded the mission, Allen said he was confident that Iraq would be able to maintain its young democracy "in the long run."
"You might not see it right away," he said, but the regiment trained many young Iraqis who will work to uphold their new style of government.
"The regiment has done its part to give Iraqis (a means of being) self-sufficient."
Regimental Command Sgt. Maj. Jonathan Hunt agreed.
"I think (the regiment's) legacy is to be that of a long-term, enduring partner with multiple Iraqi units," he said. "We've served four years over here in four different locations and we've had the opportunity to assist the Iraqi security forces in numerous training events."
3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment public affairs officer Maj. Jason Billington contributed to this report.
Contact Colleen Flaherty at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHfeatures.