Sgt. Ryan Ellenberger’s 2-month-old son left him speechless.
He held the baby for the first time Thursday in a Joint Base Lewis-McChord gymnasium when the soldier came home from his Stryker unit’s shortened tour in Afghanistan.
Tears welled up in Ellenberger’s eyes. His wife, Summer, leaned over to give him a long kiss.
Their ecstatic expressions conveyed far more than they could express out loud.
“It’s amazing. Words can’t describe it. I just can’t,” he said as he held Ryan Jr. with the baby’s eyes fixing on dad’s.
Their reunion took place four months earlier than the family expected when Sgt. Ellenberger deployed to KandaharProvince last fall with the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
The war’s drawdown is speeding up, and American units are coming home as soon as they can safely hand over their forward bases to their Afghan partners.
“We went and did what had to do, and we got to come home,” said 1st Sgt. Cory West, 34, of Steilacoom.
This deployment marked his fourth and shortest combat tour. It felt long enough.
“I think it was ideal,” he said.
West was the top enlisted soldier at a small combat outpost in Kandahar Province’s Spin Boldak District. His unit, C Company of the brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, partnered with Afghan border police monitoring a key gateway Pakistan.
They recently turned their outpost over to complete Afghan control, and were able to accelerate homecoming for more than 150 soldiers.
His Stryker brigade took some 3,000 soldiers to Afghanistan last October and November. It expected most of them to stay and fight through August.
About 300 Stryker soldiers already have come home. Another 500 are expected to return in May because of the Afghan security forces’ competency in manning their own turf, said the 4th Brigade’s reserve commander, Lt. Col. Jody Miller.
“They essentially put themselves out of a job” by tying up their responsibilities with their Afghan partners, he said.
Some Army families had to make quick decisions when their learned their soldiers were coming home early. Jenna Saad, 27, for instance, had moved home to her family in Michigan expecting her husband to be gone for nine months. She figured she could use the extra help caring for her two children.
But she learned a few weeks ago that her husband would be home early and would need a place to stay near Lewis-McChord. They found housing on post in a snap, she said. Her parents were sad to see the grandkids leave so soon, but thrilled for their family.
“Everyone’s excited,” she gushed.
West said the soldiers who came home this week will not be able to take their post-deployment leave until the entire brigade returns. In the meantime, families like the Saads who made plans to move out of state during the deployment will get some extra flexibility to settle back in around Lewis-McChord.
Many families carried signs lovingly referencing their soldiers’ shortened deployments.
“I would wait forever for you, but six months is long enough,” read one by Miranda Shaffer, 20. She was there to greet her husband, Pfc. Justin Shaffer, at the close of his first deployment.
Summer Ellenberger caught Ryan’s eye with a sign reminding him of his new work at home for Ryan Jr. “Report for diaper duty,” it read.
They’re grateful for the days they can share together because of his compressed combat tour.
“He gets to see (Ryan Jr.) at two months instead of six,” she said. “He doesn’t have to miss everything.”