The soldiers of the 81st Brigade Combat Team are one step closer to home.
The advance party of the Washington National Guard’s largest unit returned to the United States early Monday morning, nine months after they deployed to Iraq. The soldiers’ first stop stateside is at Fort McCoy, Wis., where they will begin a de-mobilization process in which they visit medical officials and receive briefings on transition to civilian life, pay and benefits. The process can take up to six days.
National Guard officials haven’t yet announced when the soldiers will return to Washington. A series of homecoming ceremonies at McChord Air Force Base and Fairchild Air Force Base outside Spokane are being planned.
The entire brigade is expected home by the first week of August.
“We are all delighted to have the 81st back home and honor them,” Gov. Chris Gregoire said in a statement. “Their service and dedication as soldiers is a shining example to our state and nation. Visiting the 81st in Iraq was a life changing experience for me and I’ve been working diligently to ensure they have access to the programs and support they need upon their return.”
The 3,500-member brigade – which includes about 2,400 soldiers from Washington – mobilized for its second Iraq deployment in August. After training at Fort McCoy and Camp Buehring, Kuwait, it began serving at bases across Iraq in late October.
The unit was tasked primarily protecting convoys of contract tractor-trailers that keep the American military supplied. Other units were tasked with running daily operations on bases, force protection and personal security detail.
The soldiers often performed missions in Mine Resistant Ambushed Protected (MRAP) vehicles. The bulky vehicles are heavily armored and feature a V-shaped hull that deflects blasts away from the interior; many have credited the new technology with saving countless lives in Iraq.
But the brigade lost one soldier on its deployment: Spc. Samuel D. Stone of Port Orchard was killed May 30 when his M1117 Armored Security Vehicle rolled during a convoy mission outside Tallil. The accident occurred less than two weeks before Stone’s 21st birthday.