A few hundred family, friends and well-wishers welcomed about 32 members of a U.S. Army Reserve unit back home from Iraq on Wednesday at a boisterous ceremony in Hayden, Idaho.
“We left al Anbar a better place,” said 1st Lt. Jan Silbert, newly appointed commander of B Company of the 321st Engineer Battalion. “These men here are true heroes.”
The unit spent a year in the province’s principal city, Ramadi, performing one of the most difficult missions of any Reserve unit in Iraq: clearing improvised explosive devices from roads for Task Force Pathfinder, to which the 321st was attached.
“These men performed exceptionally” as lead element for the task force, said the company’s first sergeant, Scott Dale.
He said that when the unit arrived in September 2006, Ramadi was a “hotbed” of violence. Each time it went out the gate, Dale said, the unit was attacked within 30 to 45 minutes.
“They would see us coming,” Dale said of the enemy.
His soldiers encountered and safely cleaned as many as seven to eight explosive devices a day, performed their mission with an 84 percent success rate and helped reduce insurgent presence in al Anbar, he said.
During the task force’s deployment, six soldiers were killed, including Cpl. Kelly Grothe, of Spokane Valley. Grothe, 21, was killed along with Staff Sgt. Coby Schwab, of Puyallup, when their armored vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb during a “route-cleaning” mission in Ramadi. Five other soldiers from Spokane and North Idaho were injured.
Silbert said 15 members of B Company remained on “medical hold” at Fort Lewis, where the 321st arrived Sept. 16. Other members of the 321st were flown to Boise and Utah on Wednesday.
Task Force Pathfinder is among the most decorated Army Reserve units of the war, according to an Army statement. B Company alone returned from combat with seven Bronze Stars with V for Valor, 30 Bronze Stars and 30 Purple Hearts.
“We want you to know how extremely proud we are of you,” Lt. Col. Greg Adam, provisional commander of the 321st, told his men.
“Bravo Company” arrived at the McCarter Army Reserve Center in a single bus escorted by about 50 members of the Patriot Guard Riders led by ride captains Larry Griffith, of Spokane, and Dan Morrill, of Careywood, Idaho.
The rumble of motorcycle engines alerted the expectant crowd to the soldiers’ arrival. As the bus pulled up to the gates, American flags began to wave, and cheers rose above the strains of the Central Valley High School Marching Band, invited to the ceremony by the family of Grothe, who was a 2004 graduate of the school.
The Patriot Guard Riders presented Grothe’s parents, Brian and Jan, with a plaque honoring their son at the ceremony.
Grothe’s sister, Shelly Clelland, said the family came to welcome her brother’s unit home and “to thank them for what they did.”
Clelland said her brother “would have sacrificed his life in a second for his friends. I’m very proud of him for that.”