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Oregon troops back from Iraq

Members of Oregon and Washington National Guard arrive at McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma on Thursday. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Members of Oregon and Washington National Guard arrive at McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma on Thursday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Niki Sullivan Associated Press

FORT LEWIS, Wash. – Rian Searls, 2 1/2 , may not remember the day her father, Spc. Ryan Searls, left for Iraq last year. But neither will likely forget their reunion Thursday.

With her arms wrapped around her father’s neck and her cheek pressed firmly against his shoulder, she didn’t move or talk.

The little girl – wearing a green dress to mark St. Patrick’s Day – closed her eyes and barely nodded and smiled to indicate that she was glad to be with him again.

“There’s nothing like it,” her 29-year-old father said. “You realize over there how important family is.”

Searls was one of more than 700 Oregon National Guard soldiers who began returning home from nearly a year in Iraq on Thursday – a tour that put them in the thick of fighting and left eight members of their battalion dead.

Their plane landed at nearby McChord Air Force Base.

Just off the plane, a soldier said: “It’s good to be home, it’s good to be home.” Another walked over to an evergreen tree, broke off a sprig and inhaled the Northwest scent.

The first of three scheduled flights landed at 6:08 a.m. and carried 131 Oregon National Guard members. Also onboard were about 160 Washington state troops from the 81st Brigade. Two more flights were due in Thursday night and this morning.

The Oregon troops, with the Cottage Grove-based 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, hail from 105 communities across Oregon.

The soldiers were taken to a gym at Fort Lewis for reunions with relatives.

Some, like Sgt. Jerome Person, greeted larger families than they left behind.

Person, 32, of Portland, was on leave when his daughter, Lunacia, was born, and had to return to Iraq when she was just a week old.

On Thursday he held the 3-month-old in his arms, in disbelief that she’d grown so much.

Person is among more than 130 soldiers with the battalion who decided before leaving Iraq to re-enlist after they were offered bonuses.

“I shouldn’t have to go back (to Iraq) anytime soon,” Person said.

Sgt. Chris Amaya, 41, said he’s also thinking about re-enlisting. His wife, Diane, said she is “getting ready to join.”

The battalion spent nearly a year in Iraq, arriving there last April. There are still about 650 Oregon National Guard troops deployed in Iraq, said Capt. Mike Braibish, a Guard spokesman.

The 2nd Battalion saw some of the most dangerous duty that could be found in Iraq, with roles in the battles of Fallujah and Najaf, among other encounters with Iraqi insurgents, Braibish said.

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