Staff Sgt. Christopher Byers marched on prosthetic legs at Joint Base Lewis-McChord Thursday, rejoining a group of soldiers he left in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province seven months ago.
His limbs chafed at their heavy use, but Byers didn’t complain. He called himself motivated by the chance to march at a ceremony marking the homecoming of his Stryker brigade.
“It’s good to have them home. It really is. I was so worried about them while were gone,” he said.
Byers, 30, served with the 4,000 soldiers in Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which recently completed a nine-month assignment partnering with Afghan forces and managing the drawdown of NATO troops in one of the war’s main battlegrounds.
The brigade on Thursday uncased its flags at the base south of Tacoma, signifying the end of its combat mission and the beginning of a reset period at home.
Their ceremony took place on the heels of President Obama’s announcement that he would speed the withdrawal of American troops, bringing home more than half of the 66,000 U.S. service members in Afghanistan by next year.
The pace of that drawdown has some security experts questioning whether Afghanistan will fall to the Taliban once U.S. forces leave. Soldiers in the 2nd Brigade seemed to think their Afghan partners could hold their own.
Col. Barry Huggins, the 2nd Brigade’s commander, said the Afghan security forces and civilian leaders he encountered over the past year appeared well on their way to creating a stable country.
To him, local Afghan government and military agencies appeared more resilient than he expected when he prepared the brigade for its deployment.
For instance, civilian leaders in Kandahar city revised their budgets and accomplished their priorities even as Western nations reduced their financial support. They adapted well, he said.
Afghan security forces, meanwhile, planned their own missions and fought well as U.S. troops left Kandahar province and handed more territory to the local army and police, Huggins said.
“There are institutions there that are stronger than I gave them credit for,” he said. “If you’re looking forward, you’re looking forward to a future that is hopeful.”
Huggins’ brigade is composed of Lewis-McChord units with comparably deep experience in Afghanistan. Its subordinate battalions were the first Stryker troops to fight in Afghanistan when they deployed there in 2009-10 under the flag of Lewis-McChord’s 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Until then, Lewis-McChord’s marquee infantry vehicle was known only for its service in Iraq.
The 5th Brigade fought on the same ground that Huggins’ soldiers covered last year, but had a dramatically different deployment.
The 5th Brigade lost 37 soldiers fighting in parts of Kandahar province that NATO had largely ignored.
Since then, NATO kept the pressure on in southern Afghanistan and Huggins’ brigade lost eight soldiers.
(The Army designated the 5th Brigade as the 2nd Brigade at the end of the 2010 deployment.)
Huggins cultivated an image of his brigade over the past three years as “lancers” – knights who would protect civilians from those who would do harm. It was a mascot that fit well for a brigade charged with defending Afghan communities from insurgents.
Huggins and others stuck to that theme at the flag ceremony.
“Welcome home; you have indeed returned with honor,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza of Lewis-McChord’s 7th Infantry Division.
Hundreds of Army families watched the ceremony from bleachers along Lewis-McChord’s main parade ground. They corralled toddlers and tried to hush babies.
The families were all smiles with their soldiers newly home. They’re looking forward to spending time together even if they’re not sure the quicker Afghanistan drawdown will keep them out of harm’s way for long.
“They’re going to be home at least a year and anything over that is amazing,” said Stacy Herion, 25.
Her husband, Sgt. Christopher Herion, serves in the 2nd Brigade and is spending lots of time playing with his young sons these days. They cry when he goes to work, Stacy Herion said, because they don’t want him to leave for such a long time again.
Byers received a Bronze Star at the end of the ceremony. He lost his feet on a July mission when an enemy bomb exploded. He has served at Lewis-McChord for most of the past decade with the 2nd Brigade and with its sister unit, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
He’s taking time to reconnect with friends from both units before going back for treatment at San Antonio Military Medical Center.
“I’m feeling rejuvenated walking among them,” he said.