Home at last! Well, almost. An Iowa National Guard unit of more than 600 soldiers that deployed nearly two years ago is back on American soil. Members of the First Battalion, 133rd Infantry, landed at Volk Field, Wisconsin, about 11 o’clock this morning, ending a mission that started in September of 2005 — 22 months ago. They spent 16 months in Iraq.
After debriefing, training, medical check-ups and turning in their weapons and other equipment, they’ll return to Iowa in about a week or ten days. First Lieutenant Brandon Gray, an Ida Grove native who will soon be moving to West Des Moines, describes some of the things he’d like to do once he’s home. Gray says: "I’m going to be going furniture shopping for my new apartment and grocery shopping and just trying to get back in the habit of real life. Probably taking my boots off and just sitting on my couch for hours on end (laughing)." In particular, he says he’s missed milk, cereal and steak.
Pleasing the palate is also on the mind of Specialist Ryan Gericke, a Strawberry Point native who now lives in Cedar Rapids. Gericke says ,"The number-one thing on my list is food." He’s asked his mom to make one of his favorite dishes, which he calls monkey bread — a garlic and butter concoction. Staff Sergeant Thomas Bogie, of Allison, says he’s missed the food from home, sure, but he’s missed family more and will be making a bee-line for them when he’s finally dismissed.
Bogie says: "My first day? My first day’s going to be ecstatic. I’m going to be enjoying the company of my son. I got to hold him for 14 days when I was home on leave and then, now he’s a little over a year old, walking and talking. It’s just going to be ecstatic to see him walking and talking." Gray says he brings home many good the "sandbox" experiences.
Gray says: "The relationships I built with guys I had never met before the deployment. That was one of the most positive things I’m going to take out of this. I learned a lot about myself and about the military in general, and I learned a lot more about the war actually being a part of it."
Their duties included providing security for convoys operating in the al-Anbar province, where the anti-American insurgency has been based. They logged more than four-million mission miles and delivered more than one-third of the fuel needed to sustain coalition force operations in Iraq. Bogie says he’s thrilled to be back on American soil but also knows the troops who remain behind are going to carry on the mission of bringing democracy to Iraq.
Bogie says, "We got started on the mission, we started off a little slow and we all picked it up. We stepped up to the plate and we continued this mission for 22 months straight without losing anybody. That’s a really high point for me." Gericke says there were many difficult times during the near-two year deployment, but he knows the experience made him a better soldier.
Gericke says: "Positive things taking home from the deployment would be being with all the guys. I made a lot of good friends over here. We accomplished a lot of good things. All the missions we had, we didn’t lose anybody. Everybody’s making it back home. I had a chance to serve with my younger brother which was a big high point for me an my brother both. Mainly that we got everybody back home safe."
It’s one of the largest Iowa Guard units to deploy to Iraq and is reportedly the longest an Iowa Guard unit’s been deployed overseas since World War Two. Lieutenant Gray says he’s seen first-hand the positive impact the U.S. effort is having on Iraq. Gray says: "We’ve come a long way, especially over the last 16 months that we’ve been there. If you were to compare that first month we were in-country to just the other day when we left, it’s a completely different world — for the better, for the better. We’re doing a good job there."
Gray says it’s hoped that with various changes the Pentagon’s made lately, they won’t be sent back to Iraq immediately. Sergeant Bogie says it’s possible they’ll be asked to return to the desert and he’s willing to serve again. Bogie says, "It’s always possible. We’re always ready for the call of the nation whenever we’re needed. Hopefully, with, like the lieutenant said, some policies in place, we’ll stay home for a little while."
Specialist Gericke says the entire unit did suffer a big letdown a few months ago. They were expecting to come home in April but then were told they’d have to stay until at least late July. Gericke says the low point of the deployment would be that extension, "When we found out, everybody was in the mindset of getting ready to come home, maybe three months left. Everybody was getting real excited, making plans, and then we found out we were extended. It really knocked the wind right out of you. Everybody kept their head up. We got up to where we needed to be, we drove on and everybody’s back home now, so, good."
The battalion has soldiers from Guard units based in Waterloo, Dubuque, Oelwein, Iowa Falls and Charles City. Known as the Ironman Battalion, the unit was featured on the Memorial Day edition of "60 Minutes."