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Iraq combat troops return to Lewis-McChord

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — With one last command, 150 members of the Army’s 4th Stryker brigade broke formation and rushed to embraced their loved ones. Husbands and wives kissed and hugged their children as a band played “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

The soldiers were home at last, after a one-year deployment for what turned out to be a tour of the final combat unit in Iraq.

“It’s a very big deal, I feel like we did a lot of good things over there,” Spc. Rodrigo Diaz of Knoxville, Tenn., said Thursday as he held his daughter. “I’m just happy to be back.”

More than 3,500 soldiers with the brigade are arriving in the next few weeks, marking the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq, seven years and five months after the operations started. Most of the soldiers in the brigade will fly out of Iraq into Kuwait, where they board military planes and have layovers in Europe and the eastern United States. The trip usually takes about 24 hours.

The last members of the brigade crossed the Iraq-Kuwaiti border, leaving about 52,600 U.S. troops in Iraq as of Thursday, said Lt. Gen. Robert Cone.

“It was already a big deal coming back. I get that’s a big deal. I’m just excited to be here,” said Spc. Hayden Daws, of Tallahasse, Fla., as he loaded his family’s car. “With all the other stuff going on, with us being the last combat brigade going out, I’ll probably look back on it and think it’s a bigger deal than I do now. But right now I’m just focused on being around my family.”

The returning soldiers were deployed in the surge last August. It was the second deployment to Iraq for the brigade, which is built around operations of Stryker armored vehicles. Lewis-McChord had a total of about 18,000 soldiers deployed in 2009 to Iraq.

“It’s just overwhelming, not enough words to express how much — I am just thrilled to be back home and be reunited with my family,” said Cpt. Folauga Tupuola, an army chaplain who was wearing a necklace made of candy. “I’m happy with my soldier reuniting with their families.”