JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. — The soldiers sat quietly in 11 straight rows facing forward, a mass of green, tan and brown camouflage.
Fifteen months ago, more than 150 Army reservists from across the U.S. left their jobs and families to prepare for deployment to Iraq with the Keene-based 220th Transportation Company.
Together they spent four months training at Army bases across the country, a few weeks acclimating to the desert heat in Kuwait and then more than nine months living in northern Iraq. During their time at Contingency Operating Base Speicher, outside Tikrit, the unit completed 170 convoy missions, logging more than 400,000 miles.
Friday evening, 146 of the soldiers gathered one last time in a small chapel on a military base in New Jersey for a ceremony that officially ended their deployment.
Family members and friends filled rows of chairs behind the soldiers. For many of the soldiers, the occasion was the first glimpse in months of their loved ones. Others wouldn’t see their families until they arrived home.
Brig. Gen. Peter S. Lennon, who leads the Pennsylvania-based 316th Expeditionary Sustainment Command to which the unit belongs, told the soldiers Friday’s ceremony marked “the final page in your deployment scrapbook.”
Despite the soldiers’ solemn faces and stiff postures, an air of excitement buzzed through the room. Knees bounced, feet shuffled and occasionally a soldier glanced back, flashing a smile at a mother, a father, a wife or a child.
They were all ready for the next chapter.
Lennon urged the soldiers to lean on their “battle buddies” as they return home and thanked family members for supporting the soldiers during the deployment.
“You have done something that no one can take away from you,” he told the soldiers. “You should be proud of what you’ve done; your families are.
“Don’t be shy about telling people what you did.”
Unit commander Capt. Adam D. Ziegner of Newfane, Vt., described how last year 158 soldiers from several transportation companies across the Northeast came together as a team even before heading overseas.
“We set into a flow, a cycle of working 15-hour days,” Ziegner said. “And as we arrived in Kuwait, wondering if they had dropped us off in Nevada, we soon realized it was Kuwait and soon to be Iraq.”
In Iraq, the unit hauled equipment and supplies in tractor-trailer trucks, known as 915s, and drove massive trucks called Heavy Equipment Transporter Systems, designed to carry large military vehicles, including tanks.
The sweltering days in Iraq often dragged, Ziegner said, but the soldiers worked hard. And so did their families back home, he said.
“(They) ran the homes alone, paid all the bills, changed diapers, cared for the children, worried endless nights with no sleep,” he said. “For all that, you should be very proud.”
After each solider was recognized and given a folded and framed American flag, the unit was relieved of its duty to a roar of cheers and applause.
The soldiers will get three months off from the Army Reserve before returning to monthly drills with their units.
Sgt. Howard W. Shay Jr. of Peterborough plans to take a few weeks off to spend time with his family, and then return to his full-time job as an administrator for the 220th at its Main Street reserve center in Keene.
“I’ve got to get back to the office and get things ready for when the drills start again,” he said with a shrug.
Sgt. 1st Class Rebecca A.M. Chasse of Spofford, who deployed with her daughter, Spc. Sarah L. Welch of Johnstown, Pa., also works full-time for the unit, in its maintenance shop.
Chasse will spend some time with family in Maine and plans to retire from the Army later this year, she said. She’s thinking about going back to school for a master’s degree, perhaps in criminal justice.
“I’ve got some time to figure out what’s next,” she said.
While many of the soldiers remained in New Jersey through the weekend wrapping up final paperwork, or left from the base with their families, a handful made their way back to Keene on a bus in a cold rain late Saturday evening.
The soldiers filed into the Main Street reserve center to the beat of a march played by the American Legion band. Local veterans and a handful of police officers joined friends and family members to greet the returning soldiers.
The normally drab concrete interior was decked out with streamers and balloons and tables filled with cakes, cookies and sandwiches lined one wall.
Among the small group of soldiers was Sgt. Karl R. Pollock of Rindge, whose wife, Kim M. Pollock, and several other family members showered him with tearful hugs.
Pollock previously served in the Navy and became a reservist more than a year ago when his son, Spc. Nick Pollock, enlisted in the Army. A few weeks before Pollock left for Iraq last year, his son deployed to Afghanistan.
Kim Pollock said having her husband and son overseas at the same time was difficult.
“It was hard sometimes, but it’s not all that unusual,” she said. “I’ve talked to other families in the same position.”
She was able to speak to her husband frequently on Skype, an Internet program, but communication with her son, who had a less reliable Internet connection, was more sporadic, she said.
“In some ways it’s better, the technology that allows you to be in touch, but in other ways it can make it more stressful,” she said. “If you get into a routine and then you don’t hear from them for a couple days, or they don’t post on Facebook for a while, you start to worry.
“But I would never want to go back to relying on letters.”
Last week, she traveled to Kentucky to welcome her son back from Afghanistan.
Karl Pollock said he’ll get to see his son early next month for the first time in more than a year and a half, and looks forward to spending time with his family.
“I’m just going to enjoy being back,” he said.
And as the 50 or soldiers returning to the 220th re-adjust to life at home, the unit will be going through changes of its own, said Lt. Col. Bryan G. Peterson, commander of the Londonderry-based 167th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion. The battalion oversees the 220th and several other units.
Ziegner, who has commanded the unit since it returned from its last deployment in 2005, is in line for a promotion and the unit’s executive officer, 1st Sgt. Anthony N. DelPozzo of Salem, is also moving on, meaning the unit will soon be under new leadership, Peterson said.
“There’s no doubt that we’re going to be losing some very good experience,” Peterson said. “But there’s a really solid core of mid-level (non-commissioned officers), and I’m confident that they’ll be stepping up.”
And this summer a detachment of the unit based in Barre, Vt., will move to a new headquarters in White River Junction, Vt. The move is part of a nationwide consolidation of bases, Peterson said.
“It will provide some new opportunities for us,” Peterson said. “We’ll be going to a larger, more urban area and I think there are going to be positive changes in store.”
But for now, the soldiers will shed the camouflage fatigues they wore for more than a year.
Instead of big rigs, most will get behind the wheel of family sedans, pickups or RVs or hop onto motorcycles.
Rather than answering to “Sergeant,” “Private” or their last name, they’ll get used to the sound of their first names again — and for some, “Mom,” “Dad” or “Grandpa.”
And they’ll settle back into the jobs, neighborhoods and families they’d left behind.
Casey Farrar can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or firstname.lastname@example.org.