Time could not pass quickly enough for 9-year-old Hayley Trice while she waited for her dad to come home to Joint Base Lewis-McChord after his nine-month deployment in Afghanistan.
“I’m going to have fun with him, and I’m going to hug him for a long time,” she said, smiling while she counted down the minutes to his return.
Hayley made good on her statement. She raced to her dad and clung to Sgt. Anthony Trice with all the might she and her 11-year-old brother could muster when the soldier’s artillery unit broke ranks in a Lewis-McChord gymnasium Sunday night. It was hard to tell whose smile was broadest: Dad’s, his son’s or his daughter’s.
Their family reunion looked just like thousands of others at Lewis-McChord over the past dozen years of war. The base has sent tens of thousands of soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan, with most deployments ending in a celebratory crush of travel-weary troops and ecstatic families.
But Sunday’s homecoming flights for soldiers in the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division were different. They marked the end of what is expected to be the final Stryker brigade deployment out of Lewis-McChord to Iraq or Afghanistan.
It’s a sign of the war’s slow end as much as it closes a chapter for the base that was the first home for the Army’s eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles and the 4,000-soldier-strong brigades that took them to combat.
Those big-picture thoughts were far from the minds of soldiers and families who were just happy to see each other after nine long months apart.
“I’m just glad to get everybody home safe,” said Lt. Col. Will Downing, who commanded the Stryker brigade’s artillery battalion and did not lose a soldier to a fatal wound over the deployment.
To be sure, the war is not over, and hundreds if not thousands of local military service members likely will see Afghanistan before the U.S. withdraws completely from the country sometime after 2014.
On Sunday, for example, about 70 airmen from Lewis-McChord’s 10th Airlift Squadron left for a two-month mission supporting the war. The base’s Ranger battalion is in Afghanistan, and some of its specialized units are preparing for upcoming deployments there.
The 4th Brigade’s return is a milestone nonetheless because it’s one of the base’s marquee infantry units, the ones that repeatedly took thousands of soldiers at a time to Iraq and Afghanistan for missions lasting from nine to 15 months.
The base sent Stryker brigades to the wars 10 times since 2003; the 4th Brigade handled three of those missions.
It left Lewis-McChord last October and November with 3,200 soldiers anticipating that they would hand territory to Afghan control as quickly as possible.
Some of its smaller units started turning their combat outposts over to Afghan forces within five months. Those American units got to come home earlier than they expected.
Brigade Command Col. Michael Getchell said his soldiers witnessed a popular uprising against the Taliban in Kandahar province, which they viewed as a positive turn for the future of the Afghan government.
He further said Afghan security forces in Kandahar repelled three significant offensives by insurgents. The Americans stepped back as advisers as the Afghan security forces led the fight.
“This wasn’t our fighting season. This was their fighting season,” he said, referring to the traditionally violent spring and summer months in the Afghanistan War.
The 4th Brigade played a similar role in 2009-10 at the end of the Iraq War, when it became known as the “last combat brigade” of that conflict.
But its latest mission was its last.
In another sign of the times, the Army is deactivating the brigade, sending its soldiers to other units across the service as part of a plan to reduce the total number of active-duty troops from a wartime high of about 570,000 to something closer to 490,000.
The Army has not made any announcements about when the 4th Brigade will officially be deactivated. Lt. Col. Jody Miller, the brigade’s reserve commander, said the deactivation would not change the Army reintegration process for soldiers coming home from Afghanistan.
The deactivation has some 4th Brigade families anticipating moves to other Army posts. Some could remain here in the base’s two other Stryker brigades or in other units.
Kate Kehler and her husband, Capt. Alex Kehler, see a move in their futures. They’ve experienced three deployments in the past six years together. Kate Kehler thinks the pace will slow down now that the war is ending.
“It’s going to be steady,” she said.
Their three kids had big plans for the 36-year-old officer, starting with some football and a trip to Great Wolf Lodge.
Dad had a simpler goal.
“I’m looking forward to Chipotle and going home,” he said, smiling.
The Northwest weather is a treat, too, after nine months in arid Kandahar province.
“It’s good to see some grass again,” he said.
Elsewhere around the gym, children held signs with phrases such as “daddy had to go away and fight, now he’s here to hold me tight.” Army wives dressed to the nines.
Laura Ross came decked out in a Viking helmet as a tribute to the mascot for her husband’s artillery battalion. Staff Sgt. Christopher Ross made a bigger commitment. She said he got a Viking tattooed on his body before he left.
Sgt. Trice beamed as his family and girlfriend mobbed him. He couldn’t say where the Army would send him next.
It didn’t matter.
“I’m just looking forward to starting a new life with my family,” he said.