Sgt. 1st Class Christoper Montera hugs Sherry Wyatt, whose son Spc. Sterling Wyatt, was killed in Afghanistan in July. Montera and Spc. Wyatt served in the same Stryker unit. Photo by Janet Jensen/The News Tribune
Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Montera returned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s main parade ground today for the first time since he left for Afghanistan more than a year ago.
He made his way onto the field in his wheelchair, rejoining the ranks of soldiers he last saw in March when a Taliban mortar round triggered explosions that deliver near-fatal injuries in Kandahar province.
“I was dead on arrival when I got to (a military hospital in) Germany,” he said. “I survived. The doctors attributed it to the shape I was in. I attribute it to a higher power.”
Montera, 33, is one of several soldiers from a recently returned Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade participating in ceremonies today to mark the completion of a fast-moving mission that cost 16 lives as local soldiers sought to control an expanse of Afghanistan about the size of West Virginia.
“It feels good to see the guys,” said Montera, who is receiving treatment at Naval Medical Center San Diego.
Today, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division uncased its flags to signify that it finished its mission. It held a separate ceremony to rededicate its memorial to include the names of its fallen soldiers from its most recent deployment.
“Most of all today we are glad you are home,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, who supervises the 3rd Brigade as the commander of Lewis-McChord’s 7th Infantry Division.
Both ceremonies brought together families of wounded and fallen soldiers who had not seen each other in months. The parents of the brigade’s first fatal casualty, Lt. David Johnson of Wisconsin, for instance, made time to meet with their son’s platoon mates outside of the official events.
“You live for those moments because they’re showing they’re remembering him,” Laura Johnson said.
Her son once called his task in southern Afghanistan an “infantry leader’s dream.” He was killed Jan. 25, 2012 by a mine.
Lt. Johnson’s siblings this afternoon took etchings of his name from the 3rd Brigade’s memorial. His name now rests there with dozens of 3rd Brigade soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It is so heartwarming and it is so heartbreaking,” said Sherry Wyatt, 53, whose son Spc. Sterling Wyatt was killed by an enemy bomb in July.
“It’s heartwarming to see his buddies. I felt I don’t have just one son. I have 80,” she said, referring to her son’s friends and fellow soldiers.
Photo by Adam Ashton/The News Tribune
Most of the roughly 4,000 soldiers in the 3rd Brigade left Lewis-McChord in December 2011 for a year-long deployment. The rest of the soldiers followed in the spring for a nine-month assignment.
Their headquarters changed several times during the year as NATO leaders consolidated Western forces and handed more responsibility to Afghans. At its peak, 3rd Brigade Commander Col. Charles Webster led some 7,100 international forces in southern Afghanistan Zabul and Kandahar provinces.
He addressed his soldiers today and told them helped create “irreversible momentum” to bolster Afghan forces as they take the lead in securing their country. He noted that more Afghan civilians enrolled in schools in their territory during their tour, and that Afghan forces showed increasing capacity on the battlefield.
“You have given the people of Afghanistan what the Taliban never could, and that is hope,” Lanza said.
The deployment was the 3rd Brigade’s fourth combat tour since 2003 and its first mission in Afghanistan. The brigade served in Iraq three times.
Another large Lewis-McChord unit, the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, served in southern Afghanistan for much of the last year, too. Its soldiers mostly came home in the past month and the brigade has not yet held its post-deployment ceremonies.
In Afghanistan, Webster’s soldiers faced deadly buried mines throughout their tour as well as the risk of so-called insider attacks in which people dressed in the uniforms of Afghan forces turned on their Western allies. Three 3rd Brigade soldiers were killed in one of those insider attacks in late September at a small outpost in Zabul province.
Others suffered life-changing wounds. Their presence at today’s events helped bring a sense of closure to some of their fellow soldiers, said Lt. Col. Steven Soika, commander of the brigade’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.
Three double amputees from his battalion, including Montera, joined him at the head of his troops today.
“It’s great to bring the families together,” Soika said. “Some of these guys I haven’t seen since they were wounded.”
Photo by Janet Jensen/The News Tribune