By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD - Col. David Sutherland settled into the back seat of a white government van Sunday and began to go over his duties.
Command Sgt. Maj. Donald Felt read from a sheet what the colonel would have to do once they and the more than 300 other 3rd Brigade Combat Team soldiers reached the 1st Cavalry Division’s parade field.
Sutherland would have to join the formation of soldiers in the middle of Battalion Avenue then lead them across the parade field. He would have to stop in the middle of the big patch on the field and present the formation to the waiting general. Then he’d have to ask permission to dismiss the colors.
Sutherland put on his glasses and Felt handed him the paper.
Sutherland, Felt and hundreds of other soldiers have been trying to get home for a week. Their flight was delayed five times and Sutherland said that their eventual arrival was a bit anti-climactic. The soldiers got used to hearing, “tomorrow.” The wheels of the plane touched down at about 10:45 a.m. on Sunday. Finally. All but several hundred of the brigade’s soldiers have returned to Fort Hood.
Sutherland casually leaned back in his seat as the van followed a police car with flashing lights. During the trip - the last stretch before the soldiers are reunited with their families - the colonel took off his glasses and put the piece of paper away. He rummaged through his camouflage backpack that sat on the floor of the van, muttering something about needing a hat.
Sutherland pulled out his soft cap and set it on his head before relaxing back in the seat. During the drive, Sutherland would occasionally dig into his pocket and pull out a tin of breath mints. The final time it emerged from his pocket, Felt asked for one.
More than 48 years of experience sat in the back of the van that morning as it led a string of white buses filled with soldiers to main post. Sutherland and Felt have led the 3rd Brigade for more than a year as it headed up the Army’s efforts in Iraq’s Diyala Province, an area north of Baghdad that’s the size of Maryland.
The brigade’s commander and senior noncommissioned officer have a camaraderie that can only develop between soldiers in battle. They are nearly in sync when it comes to talking about the brigade and the triumphs and heartaches its soldiers have experienced in the last year. Felt is one of the people Sutherland has relied on during the hard times.
The two would usually start the day with a cup of coffee and end it with a cigar, Felt said. Sutherland said he was a bit sad that upon returning to the United States, he and Felt would not have the same level of camaraderie they had in Iraq.
It’s a relationship that was perhaps 20 years in the making because this wasn’t the first time Sutherland and Felt encountered each other. It was the mid 1980s when Pvt. Felt was a trooper in 2nd Lt. Sutherland’s platoon. How have the two changed?
“He got older.”
“A lot older.”
“A lot, lot older.”
Though it had been two decades since the two last served together, they still remembered details from their time as new soldiers. Sutherland remembered a particular award Felt received and Felt remembered that Sutherland would play the bagpipes.
As the white van and the white buses pulled down the street behind 1st Cavalry Headquarters, around the north side and down Battalion Avenue, a crowd of waiting loved ones erupted. It wasn’t just the soldiers who were told, “tomorrow,” it was also the friends and family members. They too, put up with numerous delays. But that didn’t matter because the soldiers were there. Finally.
A member of the division’s rear detachment walked around the van, pulled open the sliding door, and with a big smile, said, “Gentlemen, welcome back.”
While Sutherland took his place in front of the Honor Guard, Felt paced in front of the soldiers forming up in the middle of the street. He flashed smiles and gave a thumbs up.
The van and buses pulled away shortly after, revealing the formation.
Sutherland did what he was supposed to do. He joined the formation of soldiers in the middle of Battalion Avenue then led them across the parade field. He stopped in the middle of the big patch on the field and presented the formation to the waiting general. He asked permission to dismiss the colors.
When the general dismissed the formation, Felt dashed straight to his waiting family. Sutherland’s two sons and wife darted in the opposite direction toward the waiting colonel. Tears formed in his eyes as he embraced his family.
The chaos of reuniting families surrounded the two men. Tomorrow was there. Finally.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7547