a long-anTicipaTed homecoming
texas national Guard troops back after 10-month deployment to iraq
The troops, fresh from the war zone, stood at attention in the hulking Austin Army Aviation hangar at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Friday morning. Wives, parents and squirming children waited anxiously for the signal that would release their soldiers and officially end their 10-month deployment to Iraq.
Within the month, some of these Texas National Guard troops will be back at civilian jobs as mechanics, police officers and state workers. Others face the prospect of hunting for work in what is still a stubbornly sluggish local economy. And all will face the challenge of reintegrating into families that have had to live without them for nearly a year.
But with the smell of Texas brisket beginning to fill the hangar, all that could wait.
First Sgt. Ricky Contreras barked his last order: “Fall out and enjoy your families.”
About 90 members of the 72nd Infantry Brigade’s Bravo Company, 536th Brigade Support Battalion celebrated their official homecoming Friday morning, after what commanders called a difficult and trying deployment guarding some of Iraq’s most dangerous insurgents at
a detention center near Baghdad. The unit, which flew from Fort Bliss in El Paso to Austin on Thursday, did not suffer any casualties during its deployment, commanders said.
The nearly 3,000-soldier, Houston-based 72nd Brigade, which includes numerous Central Texas soldiers, is returning in waves and will hold homecomings throughout the area in places such as Taylor and Seguin. New Braunfels will host a homecoming at 11 a.m today for 110 soldiers at Landa Park.
For Pflugerville resident Cindy Villarreal, the week before the homecoming was spent washing the truck, mowing the lawn and hanging the flag in anticipation of her husband’s arrival. “I like for things to be nice so when he gets home he can relax,” she said.
It was a tough deployment for Spc. Rudy Villarreal, one of about 30 Austin-area soldiers at Friday’s homecoming; his father died just hours before he was scheduled to board a flight to the Middle East to begin his tour. While he was in Iraq, Villarreal’s civilian job as a service technician disappeared when the company’s commercial division was sold.
“It’s like, where do I fall back into?” Rudy Villarreal said after the ceremony. He said he’s thinking about using the Army’s education benefits to go back to school.
Cindy Villarreal said that technology made the deployment — Rudy Villarreal’s second — easier. They spoke via Skype video calls nearly every day.
For Contreras, who is a 1992 graduate of Westwood High School, the homecoming was time to reconnect with his three children. “Now we can go fishing,” he told his oldest son. Ricky Jr., 12, said he had a hard time sleeping knowing that his dad was headed back to Austin. What he most missed, he said, was “just having a role model to teach me right from wrong.”
Contreras’ wife, Haley, said the hardest part was trying to fill both the mom and dad roles for their children. “It’s feeling like a single parent with three children more than anything,” she said. “It’s been a really hard year, and it’s great to have him back and have life go back to normal.”
The soldiers of Bravo Com- pany, many of them aviators and mechanics, were thrust into the role of guards at the Camp Cropper detention facility near the Baghdad airport. Despite not being trained as military police officers, the soldiers did an admirable job, unit leaders said.
“You guys stepped up and did a job outside of what you’re used to doing,” Col. Richard Adams, the commander of the 36th Combat Aviation Brigade, told the soldiers during the closing ceremony. Earlier this month, control of the prison and detainees was handed over to the Iraqi government.
Adams also urged the returning soldiers to take care of themselves, and not to hesitate to seek help if they need it. Veterans groups have called for more attention to the mental health needs of returning National Guard troops and Army reserves after a spike in suicides in their ranks over the first six months of 2010.
Adams told the troops to give themselves the time they need to re-adjust. “You’ve got to unwind from that,” he said. “Trust me, it’s going to take a year. … You can’t make yourself do it any faster.”
First Sgt. Ricky Contreras said the homecoming was time to reconnect with his three children, including 4-year-old Riley. The Houston-based 72nd Brigade, made up of nearly ,000 soldiers, is returning home in waves.