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Fri December 16, 2011

Fort Hood Soldiers Return From Iraq

Originally published on Fri December 16, 2011 2:23 pm

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Congress has already OK'ed a bill authorizing more than $660 billion to be spent on defense. Senate approval came yesterday, the same day the Pentagon declared an official end to the war in Iraq. Among the troops coming home from Iraq are the soldiers of the 112th Cavalry 3rd Brigade 1st Cavalry Division.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn was there for their return to Fort Hood, Texas.

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WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Walk out onto the grass at Cooper Field and look back at the hundreds of people who make up the extended family of 112 Cav. 3rd Brigade, and you see one of the most diverse organizations in the world: the U.S. Army - white, black, Hispanic, poor, working-class and middle-class all standing together in the bleachers. The music pumping through powerful loudspeakers matches their mood.

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GOODWYN: Sitting in the first row is a family that's driven 300 miles from south Texas. The mustached pater familias is so proud, it looks like his chest might burst.

DAGOBERTO GONZALEZ: Dagoberto Gonzalez. That's a mouthful, ain't it?

GOODWYN: Gonzalez's son is a 15-year veteran who commands a tank. And what might be this brave soldier's name?

GONZALEZ: Dagoberto Gonzalez, Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOODWYN: Like many South Texas Hispanics, military service is a Gonzalez family tradition. In addition to his son, Gonzalez has two brothers who've both served nearly 30 years. This is Junior's third deployment to Iraq, and his father is glad this war is coming to a close.

GONZALEZ: It's about time. And I think it's a war that should have never started. It should have never started.

GOODWYN: Tell me why.

GONZALEZ: They never found weapons of mass destruction. Never did.

GOODWYN: Gonzalez's wife Samonita lightly puts a hand on her husband's arm. She cares less about the politics than the fact her son is home safe. She says she did what she could to make that happen.

SAMONITA GONZALEZ: I'm a pray-er. I pray every day, light candles, the whole works.

GOODWYN: Gonzalez says she puts her trust in her son, his commanders' good judgment and God, not necessarily in that order.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: If you look to your right and you look to the rear, the buses with your loved ones, they're here.

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GOODWYN: Finally, the buses pull up at the far side of the field, and the soldiers file out, hidden to the crowd. Then 1st Cav. shamelessly rips off ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Move that bus. Move that bus.

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GOODWYN: And suddenly, there they are, marching in formation across the parade ground, marching home. About a third of the crowd begins to weep at the sight.

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GOODWYN: The battalion comes to a halt, and the best-trained army in the world shows its mettle: not a single soldier cracks a smile or tries to make eye contact with their loved ones - not one. Still, leave is so close, they can almost taste it. It's in their eyes even if they are staring straight ahead into space.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Present arms.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Left turn, march.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING)

GOODWYN: Battalion colors are uncased and unfurled, speeches are given - all a big tease, really. Finally, the order of charge is given, and chaos ensues.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Charge.

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GOODWYN: Newlywed brides throw themselves into their soldier's arms, legs wrapped around waists, noses buried in necks. Young mothers proudly present young children for inspection. Joy flows through the crowd like an opiate is in the air. Specialist Justin Millsaps is with Bravo Company 112 Cav.

SPECIALIST JUSTIN MILLSAPS: We started out the year in Nazaria. Then we moved down to Southern Iraq to Bazra, just doing counter-IED patrols and helping the Iraqi Army stand on their own two feet, pretty much. I don't know. It all seems like a distant memory now.

GOODWYN: When Millsaps is asked what will happen in Iraq now that he and his comrades have gone, he gives a wary look. His tour of duty has made him intimately aware of the historic and ongoing tensions between Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd. And he felt the resentment from the Iraqi people for the carnage the war has wrought. With the American military surrendering control, Millsaps fears for Iraq's future.

MILLSAPS: I do worry. We can't - how do I put this? We can't fix everything. And we can't make things right with everybody who thinks we did wrong in the 10 years we were over there.

GOODWYN: The Iraq war is officially over. But here at Cooper Field, the fighting doesn't feel finished. These soldiers know that if America is in a war, 1st Cav. is going to be involved. In fact, 1st Cavalry's Division Headquarters has already moved to Bagram, Afghanistan. But for third brigade, that fight's another day. Now, they're home for Christmas.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.