(Editor’s note: Reporter Chris Tomlinson spent four months embedded with A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, traveling with them from the Kuwaiti desert to the streets of Baghdad and surrounding towns. When the unit was ordered out of Iraq, Mr. Tomlinson rejoined them in Kuwait for their journey home.)
When it was finally over and his men were out of Iraq, 1st Sgt. Cedric Burns let out a sigh of relief. He had kept a promise few professional soldiers would dare to make.
Ten months earlier, he had promised the families of his 165 combat troops that he would bring them back alive. On Aug. 11, after five months of battle, sandstorms and the dangerous streets of Baghdad and surrounding towns, the convoy carrying his men passed through the chain-link fence from Iraq to Kuwait.
Men had been wounded, but none had died.
“When we crossed that border, my stress level went from six feet over my head to down to my stomach,” said Sgt. Burns, the senior enlisted man in A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment.
At a Kuwaiti army barracks, the former drill sergeant from Sylvania, Ga., spotted one of his soldiers sitting on a balcony rail and yelled at him to get off. He didn’t want an accidental fall to ruin his troops’ homecoming.
Sgt. Burns, built like a running back and always dressed in crisp camouflage fatigues, had been hard on his men throughout the war. If they griped about it, he was glad. His discipline was keeping them alive. Two of his men had been wounded seriously, and a half-dozen others had suffered minor wounds. In most cases, he had driven his armored personnel carrier into battle to protect the armored ambulance that carried the men to safety.
The men of A Company, code-named Attack, took part in some of the most dramatic battles of the war. The young infantrymen had staged a courageous feint to lure Iraqi troops into the open, captured two of Saddam Hussein’s palaces on the first day of the Battle of Baghdad and spent two months patrolling and clashing with Iraqi insurgents.
They had spent three months longer in Iraq than they expected, and when they finally were replaced, they and their Bradley Fighting Vehicles looked ragged from the beating they had taken.
Once in the Kuwaiti barracks, they could kid around at last. Would their wives pitch tents for them in the front yard so they would feel at home? Would they still know how to flush the toilet?
A few, though, were returning to divorce papers or delayed heartbreaks.
“I’m not sure if she’s going to be there or not,” Spc. Choice Kinchen of Friendswood, Texas, said of his wife.
At stops along their nearly 400-mile drive to Kuwait, the men would be called together to hear psychologists, chaplains and commanders warn them that reunions might be awkward after almost a year of separation.
Maj. Patrick Ratigan, a senior Roman Catholic chaplain, offered a last bit of advice before the men climbed the stairs to a Delta Airlines jet for the flight to Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia.
“You’ve changed since you left home 10 or 11 months ago. You’ve fought a war, you’ve killed people, or, at the very least, you’ve been in danger of being killed,” Maj. Ratigan said. “You don’t notice it, but when you get home, your family and friends will notice it.”
“It’s probably the first time and the last time I’ll be up here,” said Spc. William Combs, 20, of Hyden, Ky., a grin stretched across his baby face. Being in business class with the officers was his reward for helping load the duffel bags onto the plane. “I’m happy to be going home, but it feels a little weird.”
For the flight to Fort Stewart, Ga., the Delta crew had decorated the plane with red, white and blue streamers, U.S. flags and yellow ribbons. The flight attendants, mostly volunteers old enough to be the soldiers’ parents, added candy and cake to the meals.
Once aloft, their weapons stowed under their seats, most of the soldiers went straight to sleep. At first, the flight attendants were surprised by how serious the young men behaved, but as they learned the story of Attack Company, they began to realize that while the soldiers’ bodies were headed home, their minds were still on the dusty streets of Iraq.
The first loud cheers came when the pilot announced the plane was in U.S. airspace. Pfc. Luis Livargas, a 19-year-old from Somerville, Mass., saw Cape Cod and said: “It’s nice to look out the window and not see sand.”
Then he remembered his friend, Pfc. Robert Sciria, seriously wounded and sent home early. “I bet Sciria will be there when we land.”
“He’d better be,” Spc. Combs answered.
Pfc. Livargas repeated softly: “I can’t wait, I can’t wait.”
The MD-11 touched down at Hunter Army Airfield at noon on a sunny, humid Monday. Near the runway waited a bushy-browed man of 32 with a slow Georgia drawl — Capt. Chris Carter, the leader of Attack Company through all but its last month in Iraq.
Capt. Carter had rotated out, but leaving his men weighed heavily on him. “Coming home wasn’t any fun, knowing you guys were still over there,” he said as he hugged and shook hands with the troops.
Capt. Carter said he had expected the transition to normal life would be easy, but it wasn’t.
“I think it hurt my personal relationships. At one point I said I felt like I would have preferred to still be in Iraq,” he said. “I hope I’ll feel more complete now that they’re back.”
But Capt. Carter said that some things that were repressed in the heat of battle would take time to resolve.
“We did some great things, but we also killed a lot of people,” he said. “It bothers me for a little while, but then I remind myself that they had guns and we were doing our jobs.”
Staff Sgt. Thomas Slago of Los Angeles had suffered shrapnel hits and facial burns in an ambush, but was patched up and returned to battle. Now, as he struggled across the hot runway with his combat gear, he saw Pfc. Sciria jogging up to him.
“Sciria, Sciria,” he yelled, dropping his baggage. They hugged and wept.
Pfc. Sciria, of Buffalo, N.Y., had been driving Sgt. Slago’s Bradley when his hatch was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. He drove the Bradley out of danger before being treated. His wounds had healed.
“That’s my buddy right there; he saved my life,” said Sgt. Slago. “He’s my hero.”
From the airfield, the men were bused to a parade ground at Fort Stewart, where hundreds of ecstatic friends and family members jumped up and down in the bleachers.
With a brass band playing, Attack Company marched across the field 30 abreast, but their weary strides and furtive tears showed how different this parade was.
After a brief ceremony, the soldiers were dismissed. Fathers hugged their sons, wives leapt into husbands’ arms, children climbed onto fathers’ shoulders and donned their Kevlar helmets. Entire families surrounded individual soldiers and mobbed them.
“The cycle of life is complete,” said Sgt. Slago, his wife, Leigh, clinging to his arm. “We left here, and now we’re back here.”
For Spc. Vincent Orbison, however, there was a big gap in the circle. Deployments and training had kept him away from his daughter, Starr, for all but nine months of the two years since she was born. The little girl had vowed not to cut her long, blond hair until her dad got back. “She took a picture of him with her to day care every day,” said Spc. Orbison’s wife, Trina.
When he went upstairs to tuck his daughter into bed for the first time since November, Starr wouldn’t let him go. Every time he tried to stand up, she would cry, “Daddy don’t go, don’t go.”
The war was especially hard on Spc. Samuel Chavez’s 9-year-old daughter, Celine, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned “Daddy’s Girl.” All arms and legs and painfully shy, she wrote poems about her father being in Iraq: “Sometimes I feel dejected, and I feel like it’s raining, but it’s really not, it’s just my tears falling from my eyes.”
Spc. Kinchen’s wife was at Fort Stewart to welcome him, and they went to a fancy hotel suite to try to patch up their relationship, then celebrated his 21st birthday with his comrades.
The men hugged, toasted one another, traded stories. There was the time Spc. Kinchen ran onto a bridge to help Capt. Carter save an old woman caught in cross fire, and the time they nearly got lost in a sandstorm while going to the latrine.
Holding their drinks high in the air, they shouted Attack company’s motto: “Speed. Shock. Power. Violence. Attack,” before slamming back shots of vodka.
Out of their helmets and desert camouflage uniforms for the first time in months, and dressed in stylish shirts and gold chains, they suddenly looked much younger. You could see the acne on some of them.
When the bars closed, Spc. Kinchen and his wife stumbled back to their hotel, but the next day he learned she was seeing another man. Spc. Kinchen, a short man, lean as a greyhound, headed off to a tattoo parlor to cover up the “forever hers” on his chest with a large bald eagle. On his shin he got a new dedication to his wife — a razor-slashed heart.
“I don’t even know where to find her to get her to sign the papers,” Spc. Kinchen said after visiting a divorce lawyer. He wore a crooked smile. “Everything was great that first night … now it’s over for good.”
While in Baghdad chasing looters, Staff Sgt. Bryce Ivings dreamed of renting an apartment and outfitting it with a 27-inch television, home theater system and furniture. Now, wearing a new Hawaiian shirt, he was in Savannah and hitting the stores, his checkbook and credit card in hand.
“It’s like starting a new life,” said Sgt. Ivings, of Sarasota, Fla. “But not quite, since I don’t know where I’m going to be in six or seven months. I feel like I’m always coming back from somewhere or leaving for another deployment.”
Sgt. Burns, who had promised to bring back his troops alive, had something new to worry about: that some of the men would overdo the revelry during their two-day homecoming leave and wind up in jail. To his delight, they all showed up at Fort Stewart at 6:30 a.m., ready to exercise.
The steamy, overcast morning and damp grass under their feet were a stark contrast to the dusty desert where they had lived for months.
Sgt. Burns led them through aerobics in preparation for a two-mile run. As he marched them to the running path, he delivered the mantra every soldier knows from boot camp (expletives deleted):
“Here we go again … same old stuff again, marching down the avenue … 20 more years and we’ll be through … I’ll be glad and so will you.”