MCCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. – Staff Sgt. Derrick Gratsy squinted against the blinding light, walked down the metal steps from the passenger jet and shook hands with dignitaries at McChord Air Force Base.
About 15 seconds later, reality sunk in.
The Lacey, Wash., resident threw his arms skyward and let out an ear-splitting yell. A colleague from the 81st Brigade Combat Team smiled and patted Gratsy on the back. Another pumped his fist into the air.
“I just couldn’t help myself,” Gratsy said later. “It just felt too good.”
He and hundreds of others had good reason to celebrate Wednesday: The first group of the 81st Brigade, about 150 Washington National Guard soldiers, returned home from an 11-month mobilization that sent them to Iraq.
The brigade of 3,500 soldiers – about 2,400 of whom are from Washington – served across Iraq, and most of the soldiers guarded contractor-driven supply convoys that delivered water, fuel and other supplies to American military bases.
Other units of the 81st Brigade were tasked with running daily operations of bases, performing base-defense patrols and providing personal security detail.
For most of the soldiers, that meant 11 months of dodging roadside bombs and making middle-of-the-night phone calls to loved ones. For their families, it meant 11 months of frayed nerves and handling all the chores back home.
The brigade mobilized Aug. 18, 2008, its second stint in support of the Iraq war. It trained in Yakima, Wisconsin and Kuwait before arriving in Iraq in late October.
The remainder of the brigade is expected to arrive home over the next two weeks.
Before returning home, the soldiers are stopping at Fort McCoy, Wis., where the brigade is receiving a week of medical checkups and briefings about pay, benefits and transitioning back into civilian life.
Gov. Chris Gregoire, state adjutant general Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg and other military officials greeted the soldiers as they stepped off the plane. Inside Wilson Gym on North Fort Lewis, hundreds of family members and colleagues crammed bleachers, with even more lined up against the walls. A curtain split the gymnasium floor in two; the soldiers, most of whom serve in the brigade’s headquarters company, marched in formation behind it.
The curtain slowly lifted, with the rising chorus of cheers drowning out the music from the brass band. Gregoire and Lowenberg each delivered short speeches and paid homage to the brigade’s lone fatality on its deployment: Spc. Samuel D. Stone, of Port Orchard, Wash., who 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.
Gregoire visited members of the brigade earlier this year, an event she had previously called one of the most memorable of her governorship.
“Thank you for your amazing courage,” she said Wednesday. “You have made us proud. You have made America safer. You have made the world better.”