Brian Dalka was in Iraq with the Idaho Army National Guard during his second daughter’s birth. “But I heard it over the phone,” Dalka said.
Dalka, his wife and two daughters enjoyed a picnic lunch Sunday hosted by Silverwood Theme Park for returning soldiers in the 116th Brigade Combat Team, 145th and 126th Bravo and Alpha units stationed at Post Falls. Nearly 500 guardsmen and -women accompanied by family members attended the free event, described by organizers as a gesture to thank them for their service.
Dalka, 38, returned home Sept. 1 after a yearlong deployment. He’s learning new tidbits about his baby daughter every day.
“She likes green beans,” he said as she gobbled a few. “I didn’t know that.”
About 1,500 Idaho Army National Guardsmen were deployed to Iraq last year, including 400 from North Idaho, said Col. Tim Marsano, a spokesman. Most of the 116th Brigade came home this month. The men and women were in Iraq supporting Operation New Dawn; the name signifies the end of combat operations.
The soldiers helped provide protection as military materials were moved in and out of Iraq, and they provided perimeter security around places such as Camp Victory, a military compound in Baghdad. They also oversaw compound operations, Marsano said, “dealing with everything from making sure the people who stayed there had a place to sleep and eat to making sure they had the appropriate identification.”
On Sunday, handshakes and hugs were abundant as the soldiers encountered one another again.
“It’s the first time he’s seen some of his (military) buddies” in a year, said Christina Hoefling, whose husband, Matthew, returned from Iraq on Sept. 11.
But members of the 116th were also missing two fellow soldiers killed during the deployment. Spc. Nicholas W. Newby, 20, and Spc. Nathan R. Beyers, 24, both of Coeur d’Alene, died July 7 after their convoy was attacked.
Hoefling said he knew Beyers well. “I think we’ve all come to grips with it now, but every once in a while there are little reminders. I try not to think about it.”
Besides coping with the losses of their peers, returning soldiers face other challenges. “They need to reintegrate with their families, and that can be a challenge,” Marsano said. “They may have medical or other issues that we are working to follow up with.”
Perhaps the most urgent concern, “nearly a third of these soldiers are in need of employment,” Marsano said.
The Idaho Army National Guard is working to pair soldiers and employers through a program dubbed Hire One Vet – Hire One Hero.
Dalka is unemployed. He plans to get his commercial driver’s license to drive a truck, but he’s not in a rush. For now, he’s enjoying spending time with his family.
“They are extremely happy to be home,” Marsano said. “We in the Idaho National Guard are making every effort to make sure they feel welcome.”