By Rose L. Thayer and Chris McGuinness
Fort Hood Herald
Soldiers from Fort Hood's 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, were the last U.S. troops to leave Iraq last week after more than eight years of war there.
A group of battalion troopers returned Dec. 21, along with soldiers from 3rd Brigade's Headquarters and Headquarters Company and 215th Brigade Support Battalion. The final Special Troops Battalion group returned Christmas Eve.
As the white buses rolled from Robert Gray Army Airfield to Cooper Field on Dec. 21, an atmosphere of excitement coupled with exhaustion filled the vehicles.
After all, it's after 1 in the morning in Baghdad, said a female soldier in the back of the bus, referring to the time zone she left 30 hours earlier. The bus ride was the final leg of the journey home for nearly 300 soldiers of the 3rd Brigade, and conversation was reflective as they discussed their multiple deployments to Iraq.
"I've spent more time in Iraq than in any state in the last 10 years," said Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Armer. He deployed to Iraq three times, including in 2003.
"(Iraqis) take a little more pride in their country now," he said, comparing this deployment to past ones. "At the end of the first year, I knew we had made a difference."
Armer's battalion left Iraq Dec. 18. The soldiers were stationed at Contingency Operating Base Adder, which was the last base to close, and left in the middle of the night to avoid any final attacks from insurgents. Soldiers reached Kuwait without incident.
Capt. Maria Ige, 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, said it was eerie watching the installation go from a 12,000-soldier population when they began their deployment in February to the final 400.
"As people moved out of different sections, it was completely dark," she said.
"My soldiers called it the ghost town," said Armer.
Ige deployed to Iraq once before, but she said this tour was much more difficult.
"Nobody came in after us. We had to make sure to close out everything," said Ige, who was on the last flight out of Iraq. "It was exciting, but there was still that uncertainty of not knowing. None of us have ever done this before. That was the nerve-racking part."
After about 20 minutes, the white buses turned onto Battalion Avenue and soldiers stared silently out the windows at the cheering crowds - their voices muffled by the windows and the engines of the buses.
When asked if they were excited to see everyone waiting, Ige shrugged and hoisted her backpack on her shoulder.
"We've done this before," she said.
Despite the familiar feeling of the homecoming, Col. Douglas Crissman, brigade commander, said it was an honor for Greywolf to be the final representation of the Army in Iraq, calling it a fitting end for a brigade that's deployed to the country four times.
"Any brigade could have performed the mission that we did, but it fell to us because we were there in the southern portion of the country," he said.
Near the end of the deployment, Greywolf was responsible for securing a 220-mile stretch of International Highway 1, which ran north to south and was traveled by other units leaving Iraq through Kuwait.
Crissman said as other 1st Cavalry Division soldiers to their north traveled through Adder, their excitement of returning home grew.
"We knew sort of how the units had to progress," he said. "We knew as soon as Ironhorse passed we were next."
Alaena Pecoraro stood at the edge of Cooper Field with her two young daughters Saturday.
They braced themselves against the chilly temperatures, waiting for the white buses carrying nearly 200 soldiers. Brightly colored letters on the sign the family created to welcome home Sgt. Mitchell Pecoraro were beginning to run in the drizzling rain.
"It's all worth it to have him home for Christmas," she said. "I got a call from him at 4:30 this morning, and I've been awake ever since."
The Pecoraros were one of several families who endured the early-winter cold on Christmas Eve to welcome back the final 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion soldiers from Iraq.
"It was awesome to know that I was going to be back in time for Christmas," said the sergeant. "It's the best Christmas present."
One of the soldier's daughters, Danielle, agreed. "It's the best present ever," said the 5-year-old. "I'm going to wrap him up with a big bow."
Battalion commander Lt. Col. Jack Vantress described the elation and relief he and other members of the unit felt as they crossed the border into Kuwait.
"As we started to cross, there was that rush of adrenaline and excitement," said Vantress.
The celebration was not just about leaving Iraq and returning home for the holidays, but the completion of the battalion's mission.
"I felt like we made history," said Mitchell Pecoraro.
Contact Rose L. Thayer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHreporter.
Contact Chris McGuinness at email@example.com or (254) 501-7568.