a long-an­Tic­i­paTed home­com­ing

texas na­tional Guard troops back af­ter 10-month de­ploy­ment to iraq

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By Jeremy Schwartz

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.

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